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AT&T defends 'open' wireless network

A mixed message

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Innovation '08 Three years ago, Jason Devitt was speaking at an industry conference when he criticized a mobile application just released by a big-name wireless carrier. And the big-name wireless carrier wasn't happy.

It so happens that Devitt was negotiating to get his own mobile app onto the carrier's network, and a week later, he received a phone call from a senior executive at this wireless behemoth. "He bawled me out," Devitt said yesterday afternoon, during a panel discussion at eBay's headquarters in San Jose, California. "He suggested that my criticisms were unhelpful and that I should not do it again - and that if I did do it again, it would delay the release of my application on their network.

"That's what the world is like," he added, "without some form of network neutrality."

Yes, this panel discussion - part of the Media Access Project's Innovation '08 series - debated the ever-present neutrality issue. But it went beyond the wire-line internet, touching on the state America's mobile networks. The highlight was Devitt, who spent most of the afternoon sparring with Jeff Brueggeman, vice president of regulatory planning & policy at AT&T.

Devitt - a longtime wireless investor who now runs a mobile app outfit called Skydeck - didn't say which carrier had "bawled him out." But he wasn't shy about his continued distrust for AT&T. Yes, he's pleased that AT&T - like other US carriers - is now making lots of noise about opening its mobile network to any device and any application. But he questions how open it will be.

Late last year, after the FCC slapped an open access requirement on a portion of the the so-called 700-MHz band and Verizon announced that its network would be open by the end of 2008, AT&T joined the fun, telling the world its network has always been open.

Devitt argues this is less than true. In the past, he said, he and his developers could never buy an unlocked AT&T SIM card directly from AT&T. They couldn't test an app on the company's network without resorting to, well, unofficial channels. "We had to develop personal relationships with AT&T store owners who would sell us SIM cards under the counter," he said. "That's the only way we could attach our app to the network."

Following its December announcement, AT&T is now selling SIMs directly from its web site. But, like many, Devitt questions how far AT&T will take the open model. AT&T won some serious spectrum during the 700-MHz auction, but it avoided the bits with the open access requirement.

"You can now bring any device to the AT&T network," he said. "But we wonder what's going on when AT&T tells its shareholders it paid three or four times more per megahertz in the 700-MHz auction so it could get a portion of spectrum that was not burdened by the FCC's open access requirement.

"That's a mixed message - the mixed message that continues to give people like me in the industry pause."

How did Brueggeman respond? He reiterated that AT&T is already offering SIMs for outside devices - and that it's actively encouraging third-party developers to build apps for its network. He also said that the company doesn't like government interference.

"With the 700-MHz auction, we were just distinguishing between spectrum that has government regulations and spectrum that doesn't. Any type of regulation carries a certain amount of uncertainty and risk - which has a concrete impact on the amount your willing to invest."

The question is how far AT&T will go to publicize and promote its new-found openness. People like Devitt are worried that most customers will stick with the closed model - not because they prefer it, but because they don't know any better. ®

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