A year after the hype: Where is open access now?

It was at this time last year when the whole debate over wireless open access hit a fever pitch, and Verizon Wireless made big news when it said it was going to allow devices open access to its CDMA network in the second half of 2008. Everyone appeared to be clamoring for the opportunity.

It is now the second half of 2008 and one has to ask: Where are all of the devices? During a FierceWireless interview with Anthony Lewis, Verizon's vice president of Open Development, last month, Lewis indicated two devices had been certified on the network, a SupplyNet Communications device and an inmate tracking device made by Behavior Innovations. He also mentioned a low-cost handset that was in the process of being certified.

Those aren't exactly the sexy devices that many open-access proponents had envisioned. The thought around open access has been an Android-type device capable of running applications that don't have operators' fingers all over them--with the mantra of giving consumers a choice. But few of those type of open-access devices will probably see the light of day on Verizon's CDMA network. As John Jackson at Yankee Group correctly sees it: "Who is going to go out of their way to pay $400 for an unsubsidized open-access phone when they can get a similar phone from the operator for $49? Open access could become a lot more relevant if someone figures out a way to have a similar business model to Verizon. Is Google going to figure out how to give me unlimited voice and data for a set fee on someone else's network?" As such, we're likely to see a plethora of M2M devices come under the open access initiative.

One could argue that the open device initiative becomes more relevant on Verizon's LTE network it plans to launch in 2010, but who is to say that again Verizon won't bundle devices and service plans that are much more attractive than those from third parties? How much will open access be an opportunity then?

It has become clear that even though folks like Google have pushed for open access, they also understand that they need a relationship with operators to be successful because operators will consistently hold the upper hand. It's a lot easier and more profitable for third parties to partner with operators, or invest in them, than to create a separate device, service and marketing program to run on an open pipe.

And operators aren't going to sit still and become dumb pipes either. Clearwire, which is set to merge its operations with Sprint's WiMAX business, has a vision to enable a whole host of devices and applications without Clearwire touching the process. But Ben Wolff, CEO of Clearwire, said his company is quite concerned about becoming a commodity because of this open-access strategy and will work hard to ensure that consumers like its company's applications and services better.

"The expectation is that we want to sell value-added services," Wolff said during FierceWireless' virtual event, The Future of 4G. "We have to be able to deliver services in a way that has the right to earn the customer's business. Our view is people will be able to use us just for access if they want, but our job is creating enhanced services that our customers really want

All this begs the question: How relevant will open access be going forward? --Lynnette


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