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Opening the Airwaves

By opening up its network, Verizon Wireless hopes to see all sorts of new devices connect.
October 29, 2008

Wireless carriers are famous for controlling the devices and software that they allow on their networks. Apple’s iPhone, for example, is locked for use on AT&T’s network only. But one carrier is set to adopt a much more open approach to wireless access.

Verizon Wireless is taking the first tentative steps toward a more open cellular network. In March, the company paid $9.63 billion for the right to use wireless frequencies that will become free when analogue television transmissions end in 2009 (the so-called C block operating at 700 megahertz). The 108 licenses bought by Verizon were sold on the condition that the network would be made open to any device, not just those offered by the network operator. But even before Verizon won access to the C block, it had committed itself to opening up parts of its wireless network.

Last week, Verizon’s vice president of open development, Tony Lewis, spoke at the Mobile Internet World conference, in Boston, and detailed the company’s plans for a more open wireless network. The company has ambitious plans to enable a new generation of mobile device. However, it clearly wants to open the network on its own terms and will require that devices are certified before they can connect. “When you look at what ‘open’ is, there is not a clear definition,” Lewis says. “That’s what’s most important to me. I want to write the definition of what it means to be open, and so, if I’m successful in this business, I will do just that.”

Lewis says that Verizon will launch a scheme for certifying other companies’ devices that will work in parallel with its own development and verification scheme. In addition to cell phones, Lewis expects to see an explosion of devices that connect to cellular networks, such as industrial machinery and home appliances. Since cellular phones are owned by nearly every adult in the United States, he thinks that the way to make the open network grow is by focusing on new types of devices.

“It’s about connecting any- and everything that could be connected,” Lewis said at the conference. He talked about home health monitors that might track, for example, whether an elderly person is taking medicine at prescribed intervals and then notify family members via the wireless network if a dose is missed. He also talked about home appliances that would automatically send for a repair person if a key part fails, or order new supplies, such as groceries, when they run out.

The very first device to make it through Verizon’s certification process is a simple yet practical type of sensor. Made by SupplyNet, it’s a tank-monitoring device that sends alerts when the liquid in an industrial tank drops below a certain level and needs to be replaced. Bernie Crump, vice president of sales and marketing for SupplyNet, says that the company turned to Verizon because it has good coverage in the rural areas where many of SupplyNet’s customers’ tanks are located. Crump says that the certification process took about a week–much less than the 12 to 18 months that it normally takes to certify a wireless device. But Crump notes that wireless access is cheaper with some other networks.

Verizon Wireless isn’t the only wireless company making moves to open up. Last week, T-Mobile launched the first phone built on Google’s Android platform, an operating system that gives developers complete access to the underlying hardware. Earlier this year, Nokia purchased the Symbian operating system, which it will also turn into an open-source project. Bill Plummer, vice president of Go-to-Market, Nokia Americas, says that the Internet, which is open to any kind of device and software, has pushed the mobile industry to relax its control. Until recently, Plummer says, “the vision [of a comparable wireless network] was real, but we were missing the building blocks.” Now, he says, widespread use of smart phones and better data capabilities have increased the need for an environment that looks more like the Internet.

But Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates universal and equitable access to information, cautions that Verizon’s open-development initiative should still be watched closely. “The problem is that this is still very up in the air,” Feld says. “Verizon as a company has been very good at reading the regulatory writing on the wall, figuring out where regulators are likely to go, and then trying to get there on their terms, rather than where they might end up if they tried to resist.” He notes, for example, that once the 700-megahertz spectrum becomes available, the company may come under pressure to focus more on opening up to consumer devices (which could potentially compete with the hardware that it bundles with its cellular-network products), rather than focusing on the machine-to-machine communications that Lewis champions. Feld adds that Verizon’s progress toward open development could allow the company to adjust its position carefully next year, depending on the way the new administration’s FCC might interpret the idea of an open network.

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