Wireless open access: happening or not?

And is this good news for enterprises and consumers?

Seems like carriers and content providers alike have been bitten by the open access bug. Big news recently was Verizon's announcement that it plans to open up its wireless network to any device or application. And Google upped the ante by announcing its intention to bid on the available 700-MHz spectrum in upcoming auctions, a portion of which, thanks to Google's lobbying efforts, is required to be open access as well.

Is this good news for enterprises and consumers? In theory, absolutely. Open access tends to usher in greater competition, leading to lower prices and a broader portfolio of service offerings. The "Carterfone" FCC decision of 1968 that opened up the wireline network was generally considered to be a critical element in creating the entire networking/telecom market of the 1970s and 1980s. And, as we're all aware, it's the open nature of the Internet that makes it so powerful an economic force. That's why I've always been a big fan of open access requirements, and I'm delighted to see big companies committing to it.

So to the extent that Verizon and Google maintain real commitments to openness, it's great news for end users, whether business or consumer. And it should put pressure on other providers to adopt similar open access provisions.

If you're picking up a bit of skepticism, though, here's why: Sometimes "open" doesn't mean what it sounds like. Take Verizon's "open" access: in practice, Verizon's certification process requires interested vendors and developers to seek prior approval from Verizon before Verizon will support their instruments or applications -- a move that could easily allow Verizon to delay or deter competition within its network. It's a bit like software providers claiming they're offering "open source" versions of their software -- but requiring certification and control of how the software's used.

As for Google, one has to question how deeply its commitment to openness truly runs. Let's say a competitor -- such as Ask.com -- decides to offer services on "Googlenet". Will Google support those competitive apps and services? Or will they be deprioritized or simply not permitted?

If you think I'm fear mongering, consider this: As early as 2006, Google's general counsel allowed that "the wireless world is different," and implied that wireless access shouldn't be subject to net neutrality requirements. More recently, Google has backed off the stance of a "strong support" for net neutrality, although in all fairness, what the company actually said was what I've pointed out several times in my columns: Providers should be allowed to charge differentially for differential qualities of service -- so long as they scrupulously refrain from interfering with traffic based on content or users.

The bottom line: If Verizon and Google can be trusted to maintain a truly open stance -- and that's a really big "if" -- the recent announcements are great news. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of confidence in large corporations (whether carriers or content providers) to do the right thing, so I'd caution folks against premature euphoria. But hey -- we can celebrate even a small step in the right direction, right?

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