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Verizon agrees to personality transplant

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Just two months after it launched a legal attack against the Federal Communications Commission for embracing open access to the US wireless spectrum, Verizon has embraced open access to the US wireless spectrum.

Today, the mega telco announced that it will soon give its wireless customers the option of using devices, software and applications that don't come straight from the company itself.

This is the wireless world equivalent of the Soviet Union embracing democracy - though Verizon president and CEO Lowell McAdam put it a little differently.

"This is a transformation point in the 20-year history of mass market wireless devices – one which we believe will set the table for the next level of innovation and growth," he said in a canned statement. "Verizon Wireless is not changing our successful retail model, but rather adding an additional retail option for customers looking for a different wireless experience."

At the moment, American customers can only access Verizon's network with Verizon-approved devices and Verizon-approved applications, a restriction that severely limits your freedom of wireless expression. But now Verizon is removing the shackles. Or at least, it says it is.

Verizon's "Any Apps, Any Device" option will be available on its existing nationwide wireless network by the end of 2008. But there's no doubt that Verzion has made this move with an eye on the so-called 700-MHz band, a prime portion of US wireless spectrum due to be auctioned off by the FCC in January.

This summer, the FCC attached an open access requirement to the band, decreeing that the winning bidder would have no choice but to allow the use of any device and any application on these airwaves. This move was praised by the likes of Google and uber-startup Frontline Wireless - two potential bidders - but Verizon had a very different reaction. The telco asked a federal appeals court to remove this open access requirement.

In the "petition for review" it filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals, Verizon called the FCC's decision "arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence, and otherwise contrary to law".

But Verizon couldn't get the court to hear this petition before the FCC's auction, and it soon let the case drop. And now it's decided that open access is just peachy.

Well, sort of. Verizon is sure that "most Verizon Wireless customers" still prefer Verizon-controlled devices and apps. In offering open access, the company says, it's satisfying a "small but growing number" of people. You have to wonder how open Verizon's network will actually be.

Third party devices won't be allowed on the network unless they've been approved by Verizon - in Verizon's labs. And third party developers must foot the bill for these tests.

Whatever the case, it looks like Verizon will lay down a bid for the 700-MHz band, pitting its wits against Google and Frontline. Google has all but confirmed that it will join the auction, and though Frontline won't reveal its specific plans, you can bet it will lay down a bid as well.

Frontline was created specifically to build a brand new wireless network, and it intends to open up that network in much the same way the internet is open. "We think it's doable to build out a nationwide broadband wireless network along the internet model," Frontline Wireless chairman Janice Obuchowski told us. "Part of that model involves making the network far more accessible to all sorts of comers: content providers, handset providers, and the rest."

We don't expect this sort of unfettered openness from Verizon. ®

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