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FCC chair paints a picture of wireless devices as open as PCs

The end of the cellular walled garden

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Comment The chairman of the US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Kevin Martin came out this week and told a US newspaper just what he has in mind for the 700 MHz spectrum auction in late 2008, talking about an open network which lets any wireless device connect to it, and which places no limits on the services that can be offered across it.

In other words, he wants a pure mobile web, where customers can download any broadband application and have no restrictions on the content that is served.

It sounds to us like a flat rate, open IP architecture where devices will need only the most cursory adherence to the air interface, but where applications are pure IP, and most services are delivered over the web. In fact, it sounds like the halcyon days of the Personal Computer, where just about anyone could write an application.

If the chairman gets his way, this will spark the end of the cellular walled garden, and offer a form of wireless network neutrality at least in this spectrum. The likely winner of such a bid would be an OFDM network, which is perhaps best suited for IP packet delivery of all the wireless protocols, and that suggests WiMAX now, though LTE could possibly be defined enough by the time of the auction.

He gave a passing nod to the idea that no downloadable software should be illegal, or should be able to harm the network, but apart from that hinted that there would be no restrictions allowed by the operator on applications – a far cry from the issues surrounding the recently-launched iPhone.

This would not only create a challenge for bidders, and give the whip hand to device makers and software suppliers, but in giving way to a period of wireless innovation along the lines of the first days of the internet, it would put huge competitive pressure on existing services which are not regulated in this way, to follow suit.

In Europe we have already seen what one rogue player (for instance 3 Group) can do when it offers flat rate broadband, forcing other, larger players to follow in its footsteps or lose customers. Much the same would happen here.

Martin described the auction as providing the elusive "third pipe" to the home and said he was concerned that overseas network customers were benefiting from greater innovation and thought it was time the US public got the same treatment, and specifically referred to the idea of US operators stripping Wi-Fi out of handsets that were designed work with it, and locking phones so they only work with one network - a criticism that has been levied at the Apple iPhone as hackers this week have tried to find the code that ties it to the AT&T network, so "gray" imports of iPhones can be sold all over the world.

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Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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