Members of Congress Call for iPhone Freedom

Bipartisan members of Congress spoke out today to free the iPhone and other next generation hand-held computers from the grip of phone incumbents like AT&T and Verizon.
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Bipartisan members of Congress spoke out today to free the iPhone and other next generation hand-held computers from the grip of phone incumbents like AT&T and Verizon.

During the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, representatives from both sides of the aisle called for a more open wireless system where new innovations aren't held hostage to the competition-killing carriers that control the network.

Users 'Trapped'

In what's been dubbed the "iPhone hearing" Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and "Chip" Pickering (R-Miss.) called for a different system - where wholesalers could compete and new applications and devices could be connected regardless of carrier.

"The iPhone highlights both the promise and the problems with the wireless industry today," Rep. Markey said holding up before other members his newly acquired iPhone. "On the one hand, it demonstrates the sheer brilliance and wizardry of wireless engineering. On the other hand, the advent of the iPhone raises questions about the fact that a consumer can't use this phone with other wireless carriers."

Markey highlighted myriad problems with our wireless marketplace, where "many consumers feel trapped having bought an expensive device or having been locked into a long-term contract with significant penalties for switching."

Representative Pickering called for more openness in the marketplace stating that "openness is creating a wholesale market" for competition between services. "Openness is creating interoperability for devices so that you can use a device, whether it's an iPhone or another device, with whatever function you choose," the Mississippi Republican said. "If you want to go to a Wi-Fi or WiMax spot and use it, or if you want to have the access to other networks, you can do so. That's openness in wholesale."

'Calcified' Markets

Markey and Pickering spoke about the current dilemma in America's wireless system. The iPhone is shackled to AT&T and won't work on any other network. The reason? We have allowed carriers to exert almost complete gatekeeper control over all devices, services and content in the wireless sector.

This has left the U.S. generations behind other nations, a failure that prompted New York Times blogger David Pogue to call American carriers "calcified, conservative and way behind their European and Asian counterparts."

Regulations That Work

"I'm a small business owner. I don't like regulators," Jason Devitt, co-Founder and CEO of Skydeck testified during the hearing.

"In the context of wireless spectrum I do not have a choice between no regulations and regulations. We have a choice between badly written regulations and regulations that work."

'Mad as Hell'

Devitt continues:

"[I] flew here from Silicon Valley to tell you that we have a regulatory system that doesn't work and the only way we're going to fix it is if you have some form of open access ...

"I am an entrepreneur and I am mad as hell that I require permission to innovate in the wireless market. I don't have to go to the great companies that built our public highways and ask them for their views for what kind of cars I can put on those roads...

"For some reason I have never been able to understand, I have to ask permission of Verizon Wireless to attach a computer or the computers that they now call phones to their wireless networks and I have to ask their permission to run applications and services on those phones."

DeWitt told representatives that we can fix the problem through open access regulation. "By open access, essentially it's what Mr. Pickering said, it is the opportunity to attach any device to the network. It is the opportunity to run any service on the network."

Spectrum Oligopoly

Professor Tim Wu of Columbia University testified that there's "something weird" about America's wireless market.

"It's not like consumer electronics or software markets. It's not like the Internet," he said comparing the current wireless market to the old vestiges of the AT&T monopoly model. "It's that model which has failed us."

Professor Wu said that the one area that America has not been a technical leader is in the wireless space. "We have allowed one way or another there to be a spectrum-based oligopoly in wireless that has controlled innovation," he said. This Congress and the FCC has a duty to set us back to a direction towards and open market."

Wu recommended that the U.S. implement wireless Carterphone principles and create an open access standard across the spectrum so that the next iPhone isn't held captive by a locked system.

Our Last, Best Chance for an Open Network

These concerns echo actions by the Coalition to open the upcoming government auction of valuable radio spectrum.

In May, Free Press, Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and others called upon the FCC to implement an "open access" model that included Net Neutrality conditions for content and applications and permitted third parties to access the network as wholesalers and provide a wide variety of wireless broadband services, devices and access alternatives.

In June, more than a quarter million supporters put the FCC on the spot when they flooded the agency with comments and urged Chairman Kevin Martin to open these airwaves to wholesalers and Net Neutrality.

The upcoming auction has moved the debate over open networks and Net Neutrality to the wireless industry where carriers exert multiple layers of control over services, applications, devices and content. Their stranglehold on wireless has chilled innovation across the sector while shackling cell-phone users to pricey contracts, phones and termination fees -- severely limiting choice across the market

The airwaves on the block are frequencies being vacated by television broadcasters as they switch to digital signals. The auction is our last, great chance to create a "third pipe" for Internet access in a wired line marketplace that is controlled by many of the same companies that hold the wireless market in their grip.

Join the Fight

Coalition groups such as Consumers Union, Media Access Project, Free Press and Public Knowledge are fighting for both wireless and wired line freedom in the broadest sense.

In the wireless world this includes the freedom to use any device on any network, the freedom to choose among competing providers and the freedom to access any content or services without gatekeeper interference.

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