San Jose, Calif. A growing chorus of companies and public-interest groups is calling for cellular carriers to open their networks to any device or Web application. Carrier restrictions are choking innovation and consumer choice, stalling the next big round in wireless growth, they say.
The Skype division of online auction company eBay filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission last week asking regulators to end the practice of carriers' controlling which devices and apps are used on their networks. Skype also asked the FCC to oversee an industry group that would create open standards for wireless networks.
Two public-interest groups are mulling similar action. And a handset maker in Taiwan is preparing to release a cell phone based on open-source software that it wants to sell independently of carriers.
At issue is U.S. carriers' practice of restricting their networks to approved handsets and applications sold by the carriers themselves. Carriers often require that handsets use specific techniques to lock the devices for use only on their networks.
A Columbia law professor decried the practice in a position paper he posted on the Web in February. In a synopsis on his blog, Tim Wu as-
serts that wireless carriers are "aggressively controlling product design and innovation in the equipment and application markets to the detriment of consumers."
Carriers are blocking or controlling the rollout of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, advanced short message service, mobile browsers, legal image and audio file transfers, and call timers, Wu wrote. Separately, carriers are stunting wireless applications growth by failing to create open software standards, he asserts.
Public Knowledge (an advocacy group focused on digital rights) and the Media Access Project (a nonprofit legal group focused on First Amendment rights in electronic media) are studying Wu's paper and consulting with others about possible FCC petitions they may file. "Tim Wu's paper certainly provides a strong foundation for a petition to the FCC to mandate network attachment rules and network neutrality for wireless," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of MAP.
Wu's paper "nailed everything," said Jeff Hawkins, a founder of Palm Inc. and designer of its Treo smart phone and Palm Pilot PDA. "We can't build the products we want to build, charge for them what we want and add the services we want."
"The whole ecosystem is locked," said Sean Moss-Pultz, a product manager at First International Computer, one of Taiwan's largest PC makers. In March, FIC will release the Neo1973, a handset that uses only open-source Linux software (see story, this page). Pultz is courting developers to write applications for the phone, which he hopes to sell directly to users.
"This is the missing piece in the mobile industry today, a device for which anyone can develop applications," Moss-Pultz said in a phone interview last week from Finland, where he was presenting the concept to executives at Nokia.
In its petition, filed Feb. 21, Skype asks the FCC to apply the so-called Carterfone rules to the wireless industry. Those rules were enacted in the 1960s to force wired-telephony monopoly AT&T to let consumers connect phones and other devices to its network, even if the devices were not made or approved by AT&T. (Skype software lets users make free long-distance calls using voice-over-Internet Protocol.)