Public interest groups join call for open wireless service

A public interest group is using a Federal Communication Commission spectrum auction initiated last week to push for broader changes to the FCC’s policy on wireless use.

As part of its sale of the 700 MHz spectrum, considered beachfront property on the radio band, the FCC placed specific conditions for use on the section of the spectrum known as the C Block. Companies that buy up portions of that block must open up their networks so that consumers can use any wireless device or software they may want. Under these rules, customers who purchased a Samsung cell phone, for example, could use a variety of wireless networks.

But Free Press, a public interest group that focuses on telecommunications policy, wants the FCC’s spectrum auction rules to expand beyond just the C Block to the entire cell phone world. The watchdog group argues that cell phone providers have too closely controlled how their customers access the Internet.  

“It is pure consumer choice,” said Ben Scott, Free Press’s policy director. “On one hand, we should be able to choose any device that you want. On the other hand, we should be able to choose any network that you want.”

Free Press and other public interest groups like the Media Access Project and Public Knowledge are supporting a petition to the FCC that would do just that. Started by Skype, an Internet company that allows users to make phone calls over the Web, the petition calls for the agency to place open access rules on the wireless world.

“It makes little sense to have openness rules in one part of the market and not in the broader wireless market,” said Christopher Libertelli, Skype’s senior director of government and regulatory affairs. “A conversation begun on a 700 MHz device should be allowed to continue whenever and wherever the Skype subscriber roams.”

Skype has attempted to make a push into the cell phone market. In October 2007, the company launched the 3 Skypephone for use in Asia and Europe. In addition, Sony announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that Skype could be used on its portable video game player, the PSP.

For their part, many cell phone providers have promised to open up their own networks. For example, Verizon said in November 2007 that it would allow its customers to use devices not offered by the company on its nationwide wireless network sometime this year. Further, Sprint and T-Mobile are part of the Open Handset Alliance that is committed to using cell phone software being developed by Google that should make it easier to use various applications on mobile phones.   

The FCC has supported such moves because they should have the effect of expanding consumer choices. Chairman Kevin Martin has praised both Verizon and the alliance for moving in that direction.

But Verizon and others have opposed Skype’s petition with the agency, according to ex parte records filed with the commission. Industry representatives argue that government intervention is not needed because the companies are pursuing options to open up their own networks.

“The wireless market is unbelievably robust. Why would you regulate when there is not a problem?” said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, a wireless trade association.

Cell phone providers have opposed past FCC efforts to promote open access. When the commission first issued open access rules for the C Block, Verizon sued the FCC. The company has since withdrawn its suit. CTIA, however, is still actively pursuing a suit it filed.

Guttman-McCabe argues the market will allow customers more and more to choose devices that can access other networks. More than 700 handsets have been developed in the United States so far, he said.

“Let the carriers compete on it, and customers will flock to it,” he said.

But Scott believes the FCC needs to step in in order to ensure wireless users have more choices in the future.

“Why shouldn’t these conditions apply to the existing cell phone world?” he asked, referring the spectrum auction’s open access rules.

Skype’s petition is still pending. The FCC is taking comments and considering the next steps for the motion.