"Free My Phone" was the impassioned headline of Wall Street Journal personal technology columnist, Walt Mossberg, who took both the wireless carriers and the FCC to task for not giving consumers the choice to use the devices and applications of their choice. Currently, wireless carriers can restrict the phones and other devices consumers can use on their network, what device features they can access, and what software applications and content they can download. This "locking and blocking" has been prohibited in relation to traditional wireline telephone service since the 1968 Carterfone decision by the FCC gave consumers the right to purchase their choice of equipment and to connect any telephone or safe device without carrier-imposed limitations.
The event examined the current debate regarding the ability of wireless carriers to limit consumer freedom and whether an increasing marketplace trend toward more openness will be sufficient, or if regulation extending the wireline Carterfone rules is needed to ensure consumer choice and freedom in the wireless telecommunications market. New America also released a paper by Rob Frieden of Penn State University, which described the FCC precedent for wireless Carterfone regulation.
FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps served as keynote speaker. Commissioner Copps commended pledges from Verizon and others to increase openness on their wireless networks, but cautioned that the FCC should “trust but verify” those promises. “I really hope that, when I open my Wall Street Journal and Business Week in 2009, our next panelists will be telling me that the wireless marketplace is every bit as vibrant as the rest of the consumer electronics marketplace,” Copps said.
Walt Mossberg highlighted the growing need for government intervention to pry open the wireless market and increase consumer freedom. He noted that when consumers purchase a new computer, they do not have to get permission from their Internet service provider (ISP). Stephen Wildstrom agreed with Mossberg and further expressed concern over the increasing practice of wireless and wired providers to interfere with Internet content and services under the pretext of network management.
Robert W. Quinn noted that AT&T had a longstanding policy to allow outside devices and applications on its wireless network. Anthony Lewis offered that Verizon through its "Any Apps, Any Device" -- an Open Development Initiative, wants to encourage new types of devices and work with developers to create innovation. "This will not work if I dictate to my customers," he said. Bob Calaff, T-mobile technology policy director, said the government needs to be careful about imposing new regulations on wireless carriers. "We're not talking about a toaster or a refrigerator or even a landline phone or a PC," he said. "When we head into these policy debates, we have to be mindful that these are integral components of the network and that one size does not fit all."
Rob Frieden argued that the FCC has ample statutory authority to extend Carterfone rules to wireless carriers and has extended similar consumer protections to other technologies and services. He provided that wireless carries have an economic incentive to limit consumer freedom. “Locking and limiting subsidized handsets helps carriers foreclose subscriber access to services, content and applications available from third parties that make no financial contribution to the wireless carrier and possibly compete with services offered by the carriers,” he said.
Chistopher Libertelli of Skype, echoed Commissioner Copps reservations concerning promises by carriers to open their networks. "Sitting here, we can't predict how these press released will turn into real consumer rights," Libertelli said. Blair Levin also expressed caution about Verizon’s Open Development Initiative, noting that Verizon would only move forward if the new network created both an additional revenue source, and did not take revenue away from its established proprietary network.
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