"There is an open legal question whether the Carterfone rules already apply to wireless carriers," Wu said. "According to a 1992 ruling, Verizon is supposed to offer 'naked' call services for wireless, just like they offer it for wired customers, without requiring [the customer] to buy a phone from them."
The Skype petition asks the FCC to start a proceeding to determine the legality of carrier restrictions on subscriber access to Internet-based applications. While 5 million potential users have downloaded the Skype software to their smart phones, according to a spokeswoman, some carriers' terms of service explicitly prevent customers from using Skype on their networks.
"We want to give users the ability to use our software on the mobile Internet," said Chris Libertelli, senior director of government and regulatory affairs at Skype, who filed the petition.
The petition also asks the commission to oversee a private-sector group, yet to be created, that would set open standards and work for transparency in wireless networks. "This request balances the government's traditional role of oversight with industry-led standards," Libertelli said.
The petition comes at a time when the FCC already has several questions on carrier practices queued up, said Libertelli. For instance, the CTIA, a cellular carriers' trade group, has asked the FCC to preempt state laws striking down their practice of charging early service-termination fees.
The CTIA condemned Skype's petition the day it was filed. "Skype's self-interested filing contains glaring legal flaws and a complete disregard for the vast consumer benefits provided by the competitive marketplace," CTIA chief executive Steve Largent said in a prepared statement. "Skype's 'recommendations' will freeze the innovation and choice hundreds of millions of consumers enjoy today. The call for imposing monopoly-era Carterfone rules on today's vibrant market is unmistakably the wrong number."
No other companies joined Skype on the petition. But Libertelli shared the document with a range of tech companies, including some handset makers, and they may share their views once the FCC opens the petition to public comment, possibly in a matter of days."It would be useful to get the support of handset makers," said Libertelli. "However, many of them have commercial relationships with carriers that might affect their positions."
"This is a delicate issue for companies whose customers are carriers," said Wu.
Nokia, Motorola and Texas Instruments did not reply to multiple requests for comment for this story.
According to Skype's petition, Cingular forced Nokia to strip Wi-Fi capabilities out of its European E62/E61 smart phones before they could be used on the carrier's U.S. network.
Verizon typically requires that handset makers disable Bluetooth's file transfer capabilities on their handsets. That's because it wants users to download camera phone pictures to a paid Verizon Web site rather than directly to their local PCs, the petition states.
Carriers are inhibiting the deployment of consumer products including cameras and handheld global positioning system devices with embedded cellular networking, said Wu. "Mobile cameras could easily download pictures slowly in the background over a cellular line, but we haven't seen this yet," he said.
Wu suggested the hardware and software restrictions have stalled the long-anticipated rollout of location-based services using GPS capabilities already built into most phones. In addition, several carriers have told handset makers to remove a software feature for tracking call minutes, ostensibly because the carriers don't want users to know when they exceed their contracted minutes. Carriers have also slowed the rollout of social-networking apps for mobile phones, Wu said.
Palm's Hawkins said designers chafe at the locking mechanisms that carriers require handset makers to build into phones. "It makes it hard to build and test phones. We need special tools," he said.
Carriers contacted for this article did not reply by press time. But a survey of 14,000 cell phone users in 37 countries released last week suggests that piling on features could inhibit cell phone growth.
"The No. 1 problem voiced by users in every region was 'too many features I did not use,' suggesting the industry's emphasis on more features and functions has not improved the elegance or utility of mobile handsets," the Global Mobile Mindset Audit found. The study was prepared by Global Market Insite Inc. for the CMO Council, a high-tech marketing group.
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