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'Hell has frozen over'

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SOFCON 2008 Verizon continues to insist that its wireless network will soon be open.

Yesterday at Sofcon, a Silicon Valley conference dedicated to "The Mobile Future", everyone from New York Times columnist David Pogue to Nokia CTO Bob Iannucci took a swipe at the big-name wireless carriers, accusing these closed-minded giants of shamelessly stifling America's wireless industry.

But at the end of the afternoon, Verizon's Paul Brigner fought back, claiming that his company isn't as innovation-challenged as people think.

"Verizon has 65.7 million of the 255.4 million wireless subscribers in the country, and 55 per cent of our retail customers actually carry broadband-enabled devices," said the company's executive director of internet and technology policy. "So there's a lot of innovation that has happened on the network to date."

This may not have been the best way to gain the trust of his audience. But Brigner went on to say Verizon will indeed bring "any device and any application" to its network. "What was that headline David Pogue showed this morning? 'Hell Freezes Over. Pigs Fly. Verizon Opens Its Network'? Well, I'm here to announce that all that must have happened because Verizon's network is open. Or, rather, it is opening."

The company says its network will be open by the end of the year. And it says this openness will continue on the LTE (Long Term Evolution) 4G network it plans to build on the 700MHz C Block spectrum it recently won at auction.

The FCC has attached an open access requirement to the C Block, but Brigner said Verizon's definition of openness is "much greater than the FCC had envisioned".

But John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, remains unconvinced. Speaking after Brigner, he continued to question whether Verizon and its telco buddies have turned the corner.

"In the wireless market, vendors talk about producing trends by putting in 'sticky' services - i.e. ways to lock their customers in - as opposed to offering them ways to do whatever they want on the network," he said. "I'm expecting that you're going to see a lot of mobile access through networks that aren't run by carriers."

His one example was municipal Wi-Fi. But then he acknowledged there have been problems with municipal Wi-Fi, citing the famously failed partnership between Google and EarthLink in San Francisco, California. This was an opportunity to point out that Google likes to keep lots of information about people.

"One of the reasons this fell apart was that the deal was tied to capturing the location of everyone who used the network and keeping all that information forever in a big Google database in the sky...And [Google] wouldn't budge on this issue," he said.

So, it seems that the lesson of today's conference is this: If the American wireless industry is to save itself, either Verizon has to make good on its promise of openness or Google must get serious about privacy. It's not a pretty picture. ®

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