As cellphones evolve ever faster into "convergence" devices that surf the Web, check email, and enable users to watch and even send videos, the question is — will the wireless Internet be as free and open as its wired counterpart? Or will telecom carriers continue to lock down their networks and block third-party services at a whim?
That's the question media reform group Free Press posed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today, urging the agency to enforce its "Internet Policy Statement" governing Internet access for wireless networks alike. The Policy Statement mandates that consumers can access the Internet with any device they choose, for any content they wish.
"Wireless broadband networks cannot become a safe haven for discrimination," said Free Press' policy counsel Chris Riley. "The Internet in your pocket should be just as free and open as the Internet in your home. The FCC must make it crystal clear that a closed Internet will not be tolerated on any platform."
The letter to the FCC was provoked by recent reports that two wireless carriers may be preventing certain applications from working on phones exclusive to their networks. When the Skype for iPhone application was released this week, Apple — who partnered with AT&T; to sell the iPhone with AT&T as its exclusive carrier — disabled the Skype application from working on its 3G wireless network.
Skype, a free service which enables PC-to-PC phone and video calling to members, still works over Wi-Fi networks apart from AT&T's own. But the massively popular service was blocked by Apple at AT&T's request, according to the Wall Street Journal.
"Customers are free to download and use the apps they want, but we have no obligation, nor should we have, to facilitate or subsidize our competitors' businesses," an AT&T spokesman said.
Similarly, T-Mobile, which partnered with Google in an exclusive deal to sell the G1 "Android" phone, was reported to be cracking down on the sale of "tethering" applications for the G1. "Tethering" enables the phone to be used as a wireless network for a separate desktop or laptop computer, a move which the company said would violate its terms of service — and cut into its mobile broadband sales.
Both moves highlight the problems customers have in closed wireless networks where the service providers determine what they can and cannot use, Free Press said in its FCC letter.
"Wireless networks demonstrate numerous anti-consumer practices that may be violations of the Commissions Internet Policy Statement," the group said. "In some cases, these appear to be outright restrictions on applications, services or devices imposed by the carrier. In other cases, there appears to be a business relationship between carriers and equipment vendors designed to cripple applications or hinder consumer choice for anticompetitive purposes."
Opening wireless networks to all devices and programs has been a large part of the debate over "net neutrality," the principle that all Internet content should be accessible to all users equally, without discrimination or blocking.
Net neutrality advocates believe that the current state of the U.S. wireless market — where users are locked into contracts to get access to phones — enables carriers to push their own services and block competition from others.
Although the 2008 auction of wireless spectrum required that it be "open" to any device and enable users to access any content, the FCC also dismissed a petition from Skype to open all wireless providers' networks to its service.
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