Telecom reform over the last four decades has sparked massive innovation and growth – and helped lead to the vibrant wireline Internet we know today.
However, the wireless world could hardly be more different. Where the Internet’s rise was helped by agreements on open standards and access, the wireless world remains splintered by the “walled gardens” owned by wireless carriers. As anyone trying to create mobile features will tell you, entering the wireless market is extremely frustrating – many entrepreneurs have simply given up.
Unless this changes, the wireless broadband world risks facing an even bigger “innovation gap” than we have today. Europe and Asia continue to surge ahead without us.
Take, for example wireless devices.
In 1968, a landmark court ruling – the Carterfone decision – directed that any device could be attached directly to the public telephone network through a standard jack connection, unleashing market forces that gave rise to new products ranging from fax and answering machines to PC modems.
Wireless devices, meanwhile remain stuck in the walled gardens.
The same goes for applications, services and protocols. Opening wireless broadband to new market entrants – with open devices, open software and open IP services – is critical to continued innovation in new devices, new services and new mobile web applications coming out of Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
Similarly, to promote innovation in services and applications for consumers in the wireless world, a better model is needed than the current status quo. A key ingredient to change this is that competition should be fostered.
This fall, regulators have a once-in-a-generation chance to turn this dynamic around when auctioning this “beachfront” spectrum in the 700 MHz band. A small part of the airwaves that will be put up for bid in an upcoming FCC auction should must be made available to all software protocols, applications, content, devices and users to provide a staging area for broadband technology driven by investment, innovation and user needs rather than limited by the walled gardens of a few carriers.
This week, the Federal Communications Commission plans to vote on rule changes that will shape the rules of the road for how these airwaves will be auctioned and seek feedback on some proposals.
Open access requirements for a limited slice of 700 MHz spectrum would also address the requirements of key user groups that the current broadband duopoly has not yet met. A national wireless broadband platform is critical for the public safety community. For too long, first responders have relied on inadequate communications tools that were not interoperable in responding to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. The FCC has referred to this status quo of ad hoc, narrowband networks as “balkanized,” and they are right.
A proposal by Frontline Wireless, which I support and in which I am a partner, would ensure that whoever wins part of this spectrum would provide free buildout for public safety users of a national, IP-based network for interoperability and provide access to adjacent commercial spectrum when needed during emergencies. The network would allow public safety users – as well as commercial counterparts –to use any equipment they select, fostering availability of broadband tools that are innovative and competitively priced.
This next generation “4G” network would provide wholesale service under aggressive buildout requirements to be made available to 98 percent of Americans. Under the Frontline plan, the winner of this spectrum would be required to comply with conditions that foster competition and maximize user choices, including offering service on a wholesale basis; operating under open access principles; and providing roaming to wireless carriers who need it and seek it.
Beyond the upcoming bidding for 700 MHz, another government auction of such valuable airwaves is not on the horizon. It is essential that a small fraction of 700 MHz be set aside for an open network that supports open device interconnections. But prospectively earmarking a part of these airwaves for innovation, by ensuring that next-generation devices and applications have guaranteed access, is the best and only near-term opportunity for moving beyond a current environment in which a handful of carriers control our wireless future.