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Panelists Debate the Degree of Openness on Wireless Networks

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By William G. Korver, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com

MCLEAN, VIRGINIA, June 26 – Whether wireless networks are open or closed to competition was the subject of sharp dispute at a Thursday afternoon panel at the Digital Media Conference here on “The Coming Open Wireless Network: Hype vs. Reality?”

There is “no openness yet” in wireless networks, said Michael Calabrese, vice president and director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation. Three industry practices by carriers are preventing the opening of an era of open wireless networks, he said.

These industry practices are blocking and locking cell phones to a particular wireless network, crippling features that otherwise would be available on the handset, and discrimination in broadband service, said Calabrese. He did say that Verizon’s promise of increased openness provided some hope for the future.

Carolyn Brandon, vice president of policy at the wireless association CTIA, disputed the assertions made by Calabrese. She said that what Calabrese termed “blocking” was actually consumer-friendly “bundling” that routinely saves customers money. This practice is “not screwing the customer,” she said.

Moreover, carriers have every right to limit bandwidth based on costs, said Brandon.

Brandon said that the market should determine the fate of tiered pricing. Pointing to America Online’s decision to change from a “walled garden” of limited online options to an internet-friendly approach as a distribution hub after losing an enormous amount of paying customers, Brandon said that governmental regulation is not needed and a bad idea.

The Federal Trade Communications’ approach to internet issues demonstated that government regulation is a step that should be avoided as long as possible, especially when the market is not indicating that regulation is required, she said.

Echoing Brandon, Suzanne Toller, of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, said that carriers are usually forced to bear the brunt of the blame for failures by regulators and the courts – even though the problems are usually caused by a content provider, not the carriers.

In any case, a major problem confronting the creation of a open wireless network is the question of the appropriate business model to keep costs at a minimum for wireless clients, who are the most price-conscious buyers, according to recent surveys, Brandon said.

Rick Robinson, vice president of products and services for Sprint’s XOHM WiMax service, said that his company hopes to solve the problem of payment by utilizing a flat access fee, with a premium plan for those willing to pay more.

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