FCC to start probes into wireless innovation, competition and billing

WASHINGTON--The FCC voted today to begin wide-ranging inquiries into how to promote innovation in the wireless industry, how to analyze competition in the industry and how best to provide consumers with information about their mobile service plans. In its first open meeting as a full panel in more than seven months, the commission signaled that it would be willing to expand the scope of its scrutiny and bring an analytical focus to its work.

"We are at a pivotal moment at the history of this industry," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the meeting. "Sometimes this will require changes in commission rules. Sometimes it won't. But it will always require a relentless focus on policies that promote investment, competition and consumers."

All three of the inquiries were adopted unanimously by the five-member commission. The FCC did not adopt any new rules, but simply agreed to launch investigations, gather comments from both the industry and the public, and develop a record that could then be used to make regulatory changes.

The first inquiry will look into what metrics and data the FCC should be focusing on as it works to increase innovation in the industry. The probe also will focus on what role the commission should play in repurposing and granting access to more spectrum as well as how to use spectrum more efficiently. Further, the inquiry seeks comment on what developments have been made in the move toward IP architectures, and the increased use of smartphones and location-based services.

Competition, and how to measure it, was also a key focus at the meeting. In examining competition in the wireless industry, the commission is expanding the scope of its traditional report to Congress on the issue. Previously, the FCC has produced a report focusing on Commercial Mobile Radio Service. The new report that the FCC will produce will be called the "Mobile Wireless Competition Report," and will focus on a wider range of players in the mobile ecosystem, including "upstream" players like network equipment vendors and backhaul and tower providers, and "downstream" elements such as handset makers, application developers, software makers and mobile content providers. The report also will look at how new technologies affect competition and how competition varies across different geographies, especially the difference between urban and rural areas.

"I hope the new wireless competition report will help set a standard for fact-based, analytically deep analysis of the mobile industry," Genachowski said. "And we will continue to apply such an analysis to all of the other competition and industry reports produced throughout the commission."

And finally, the commission said it would begin an inquiry into how to provide consumers with information about their mobile phone bills and charges. The inquiry will focus on how best to inform subscribers about service options, how to mange their plans and how to switch to another carrier. The probe also will evaluate information on usage and overage charges, unauthorized charges and how difficult is it get unauthorized charges removed from bills. Further, the probe will look at how carriers disclose all of this information, and whether wireless carriers should have to adopt disclosure rules similar to nutritional information on food products or fuel efficiency for cars.

While the FCC adopted the inquiries unanimously, both of the Republican commissioners on the panel, Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, said that rules derived from the information gathered in the inquiries should be made with caution and not stifle innovation.

Not surprisingly, wireless industry trade CTIA was ready with a quick response: "CTIA and the wireless industry appreciate the opportunity to respond to the Notices of Inquiry and to provide the chairman and commissioners, as well as other policy-makers, with information on the status of the evolving wireless ecosystem," said CTIA President Steve Largent. "Whether it be the almost 100,000 applications that are now available to consumers since the opening of the first applications store 14 months ago, or the launch in the United States of the newest smart phones, or the ability of more consumers in the U.S than anywhere else on the planet to access the highest speed wireless networks, or the lowest price per minute of the 26 countries tracked by Merrill Lynch, or the highest minutes of use of those same 26 countries, or the fact that we have the least concentrated wireless market on the planet, or the evolution in the way services are sold--we are excited to tell the industry's story. The wireless ecosystem--from carriers, to handset manufacturers, to network providers, to operating system providers, to application developers--is evolving before our eyes and this is not the same market that it was even three years ago. In this industry, innovation is everywhere."

Related Articles:
What kind of FCC will this be?
CTIA prepares to defend wireless industry
FCC to scrutinize wireless industry competition
FCC's Genachowski lays out concerns over exclusive handset deals
Justice Dept: Are telecom carriers anti-competitive