Feature: What Is Open Access?

By Andrew Seybold

The FCC has issued its Report and Order for the 700-MHz auctions and to no one’s surprise, the biggest block of spectrum up for auction, 22 MHz, has the restriction that the successful bidder permit any approved device and any application or software to be downloaded over the network. This is not what Google wanted, but it is a partial victory for the open access promoters. Or is it?

First, let’s set the record straight: Open access does NOT mean free access, it means you can buy any device you want that is capable of running on the network and has been approved by the network, but you will still have to pay for the services (voice and data) you want to use. The open part is about the device. Speaking of which, will we have any really cool devices at reasonable prices?

Here is the reality. There are 12 licenses up for grabs in different geographic regions of the nation, and even though the FCC will make it easier for a single bidder to win all of the licenses by permitting pooling of bids—meaning bidders can bid for two, three or more regions in a single package bid and if that bid is higher than the standalone totals for the regions, they win.

If there is not a single winner and, therefore, one nationwide network but two or more networks in this band, chances are very good that there will be two or more different technologies deployed. The worst case could be 12 winners with a total of four different technologies, which would make building an open access device a little tricky, and would most certainly mean higher pricing for the devices.

Also, it is my assumption that if a device has other bands built into it to work on networks in the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands on existing networks, it would not qualify as an open device and would still have to pass the required network certification.

Since these open access networks are at least two-to-three years away from being built, we don’t have to worry about this problem at the moment. But after the bids are in, we will know how many different network operators or newcomers own this block of spectrum in different areas of the nation. No matter what, if a single bidder does not walk away with all 12 licenses, I think you can count on at least two different technologies on these networks.

The next question for our open access friends is: If these open access devices have to have 700 MHz only in them and two or more technologies (no you cannot run the iPhone on the Verizon Wireless network even if Apple opened up the phone, it uses GSM which, in the United States, means AT&T and T-Mobile) how many of these devices could be sold? Remember that in order to build a device for a mass market there has to be a mass market. I don’t believe most people will want a phone or Internet device that works only on this one network. While the network is open, that does not mean you can take the device to another network.

It also means Apple can still do an exclusive deal with AT&T for the iPhone, Verizon Wireless can have its exclusive on the LG Chocolate and Sprint and T-Mobile on their phones. Those who want open access devices can have them as well, but only on this one portion of the 700 MHz band, and what will they cost?

Being able to download anything you want across a network is going to be interesting. What if you download a game or ringtone or other software that does not work on your device and renders it inoperable? There is a reason applications are tested, and most of the software companies working with the networks have to support many different devices because there are differences in screens, keyboards, operating systems and more.

Open access is upon us, or at least it will be in a few years. I believe that the difference between the Internet and wireless networks is that wireless networks are managed, their traffic is monitored, the devices are tested and there are live people sitting in an operations center 24/7 to ensure that the network stays up and works when you want it. The Internet, on the other hand, is unmanaged and subject to denial of service and all sorts of attacks. My preference is to stick with a network I know is being managed and, by the way, with my notebook I can download anything I want from the Internet, no problem. So from that aspect, I am already using an open access network.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.