How open will the major wireless networks be? Depends on which company you ask. Speaking at a major CTIA trade show yesterday in San Francisco, the CEOs of Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all talked up the virtues of openness and trashed the vices of "the walled garden." But that doesn't mean they all plan to allow just any dirty device onto their pristine networks.
T-Mobile's boss, Robert Dotson, loves openness and innovation, but he doesn't see the benefit to anyone in just throwing the network open. "If you don't optimize and ensure that the network integration works extremely well, that may mean my ability to get voicemail, that may mean my ability to send an MMS is greatly impaired," he said. "So while on the outside it looks very enticing to say, 'Why can't we just put any device onto the network,' I would tell you that unless there's some minimum level of stewardship, you suboptimize the innovation and creativity that can happen."
To avoid "suboptimization," T-Mobile will exert more control over devices, but it has been a big backer of open platforms like Android. The worry is that throwing the network open to unfettered, pay-by-the-byte connections from smartphones, computers, and intelligent electric meters risks creating congestion and other side effects of an unmanaged network.
Verizon takes a different approach, one that makes the network operator responsible only for maintaining the network and certifying devices that third-parties submit. If the devices access the network correctly and pass Verizon's certification, they can run whatever apps they want (so long as the bandwidth is paid for).
While Dotson expressed some skepticism about throwing open a network to all sorts of devices, Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam was enthusiastic. He talked up the possibilities: wireless-equipped thermostats, supply chain management, sensors on major parts of an airplane that can automatically report their state to a central maintenance database—stuff that doesn't look at all like a mobile phone but that can have a "significant impact on the way people live their lives and manage their lives."
But that doesn't mean Verizon is ditching its model of subsidized handsets, local stores, and monthly plans. As McAdam has said previously, he expects open access to make up only 20 percent of Verizon's network usage in the next few years.
"I think we have to be careful not to all run to one side of the ship," he cautioned the industry. The shift to open devices and any application might cause geeks to drool onto their Transformers pillows at night, but it also creates a new set of challenges for the general public.
For instance, customers may not always like the offerings of a particular wireless provider, but they do like the fact that they can walk into a carrier's store and get service for equipment or billing problems. Once third party devices are in the mix, that will change, and the landscape will come to resemble the PC world a bit more. "When an application crashes on your Dell laptop, you don't call your cable modem provider," says McAdam, and wireless companies need to make sure they educate customers about how the new model works and who is responsible for which parts of it.
Sprint, which may have the most ambitious plans for openness, still plans to allow any device and any application on its WiMAX network, but it goes beyond Verizon by permitting wholesaling of its service. CEO Dan Hesse remains committed to Xohm's model even as he tries to unload the unit into joint venture with Clearwire, Google, Intel, Comcast, Time Warner, and others.
Further reading:See video clips from CTIAVerizon shows off one of the new "open" devicesThe trade press has further openness coverage (Telephony Online, InformationWeek, FierceWireless)Posted on