iPhone a catalyst in open access debate

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iPhone a catalyst in open access debate
I wonder if AT&T ever pondered the fact that the iPhone could actually become a catalyst in this whole debate over open access in the 700 MHz band.

Last week, I mentioned that companies such as Google, Skype and Yahoo are arguing for open access to the mobile network, but the missing piece has been outrage from customers over the issue. I said that appeared to be changing as customers feel entitled to bucking AT&T's restrictions--such as working on ways to download unapproved applications off the Internet--because they spent the big bucks on the device and feel they have the right to do whatever they want with their devices.

Now, an organization called Free Press has launched a campaign asking Americans to sign a petition to the FCC and Congress to open up the mobile Internet. And the consumer advocacy group is using the popularity of the iPhone to do it.

Go to the consumer group's website, www.freetheiphone.org, and you'll read that even though Apple touts the iPhone as the "Internet in your pocket," it's not. "You can't use it without signing on with AT&T, and once you do they cripple services, limit what you can do and restrict where you can go on the wireless Web," the group says. "We need Wireless Freedom--and our elected officials are the only ones who can give it to us: the freedom to use all Internet devices on any wireless network in a market that offers true high-speed Internet and real consumer choice. Take action today. Demand that the FCC and Congress free the iPhone--and future gadgets like it--and put the Internet in the hands of everyone."

Congress has also taken notice. In what was dubbed as the "iPhone hearing" last week on Capitol Hill, bipartisan members of Congress spoke out during a House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet hearing about open access.

"The iPhone highlights both the promise and the problems with the wireless industry today," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) 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."

In a release last week articulating its opposition to open access rules for the 700 MHz band, Verizon Wireless singled out the iPhone as the reason why people are crying out for open access. Verizon Wireless argued that it has spurred innovation with music and video services while the iPhone, "which works only on a competitor's second-generation network, continues to represent the 'walled garden' approach that has others calling for open access." (Never mind that Verizon Wireless is the operator most mobile content developers complain about when it comes to a walled-garden approach to content).

On the flip side, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt used the iPhone to strengthen his argument earlier this month that the U.S. needs a ubiquitous high-speed network that should not belong to any one carrier. His company, Frontline Wireless is planning to bid in the upcoming 700 MHz auction, and he wants some spectrum set aside for small players.

Certainly AT&T never envisioned that its June 29 launch date of the iPhone would coincide with the FCC's proposed rules that could allow a level of open access on two 11-megahertz blocks in the 700 MHz band. But it's turning out to be the perfect storm for an incumbent operator that likely doesn't want to see any open access rules come about. --Lynnette