Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Will Martin Really Free the iPhone?

Imagine our surprise this morning when we read that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants to transform the 700MHz band into a "truly open broadband network."

In articles seeded in both USA Today and Wall Street Journal, Martin indicated that he's siding with consumers to bring real openness, choice and innovation to the wireless world.

If true, this new position would mark a seismic shift for the chairman, who has routinely sided with the phone and cable cartel that controls wireless and wired Internet access for most Americans -- and against popular public positions on Net Neutrality and "open access."

But appearances can be deceiving.

Ed and Kevin

Former AT&T boss Ed Whitacre chats up Martin

"Whoever wins this spectrum has to provide ... truly open broadband network," Martin told USA Today Monday night, "one that will open the door to a lot of innovative services for consumers."

According to Martin this means "you can use any wireless device and download any mobile broadband application, with no restrictions." You know what they say about things that sound to good to be true.

Has the Public Message Finally Gotten Through?

In June, more than a quarter million supporters put the chairman on the spot when they flooded the FCC with comments and urged Martin to open these airwaves to wholesale access providers and Net Neutrality.

On the surface, it appears that Martin has heard these concerns, abandoned his cozy relationship with the phone companies and sided with the public on behalf of an open Internet.

Upon closer inspection, however, Martin's "plan" raises reasonable doubts.

Martin is reportedly going to circulate his "open access" proposal at the agency later today. But according to experts I spoke with today, Martin's version of "open access" falls far short of the ideal.

Martin Spins 'Open Access'

In May, Free Press, Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and others called upon the FCC to implement an "open access" model that included Net Neutrality conditions for content and applications and permitted third parties to access the network as wholesalers and provide a wide variety of wireless broadband services and access alternatives.

Our open model would foster new and non-discriminatory high-speed wireless services to compete head-to-head with the telephone companies. It would free up the network so the next generation of iPhones won't have to kowtow to the likes of AT&T, Sprint and Verizon -- companies that now seek to "cripple" any functions that compete with their entrenched business interests. True open access would allow the next Google or small company with the next big idea to offer its services on a level playing field - unencumbered by these gatekeepers.

Martin's proposal reportedly will call for a limited "Wireless Carterfone" rule on some of the licenses in the 700 MHz band. Carterfone refers to the landmark 1968 decision that allowed competing devices to be connected directly to the AT&T network. Until then AT&T had complete control not over the telephone network itself but also over all devices (their trademark black rotary phone) that users could attach to it.

The Carterfone ruling opened up the market to numerous products, including answering machines, fax machines, cordless phones, computer modems and launched a new industry in innovative phone devices.

Such rules for the wireless network make perfect sense but they don't solve the competition problem. They don't address wholesaling or Net Neutrality, and are a far cry from true open access.

A Well-timed PR Offensive?

So to what extent does Martin's plan create a "truly open broadband network"?

His may be little more than a politically calculated gesture that sounds appealing in the media but delivers little to none of the urgent reforms needed to revitalize the nation's flagging Internet marketplace.

Public Knowledge's Art Brodsky called Martin's moves at USA Today and the Journal "impeccable" spin. Harold Feld of Media Access Project called it Martin's "PR Offensive."

"Martin and his staff made it appear as if the Commission was about to embark on a new, glorious age for consumers," Brodsky wrote, adding that the definition Martin uses for "open access" is far different than what's truly needed to foster real innovation and openness in the marketplace.

Martin floated his plan in advance of a Wednesday's House Telecom Subcommittee hearing on open-access and the iPhone. It's unclear whether this well-timed media play will derail efforts in Washington to create a network that is more open, neutral and accessible for everyone.

We certainly hope not.

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