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|Opening the dialog about consumer rights on wireless (mobile) networks|
By Jaanus on February 24, 2007 in News, Events, Milestones.
There are two business practices that we currently see happening in the wireless networks, especially in the US. (Note that in this post, I use “wireless” in the sense of “mobile” and not wifi.) One is to lock the phones to the network of a given carrier so that you have to stay with a given carrier for a period of time and cannot switch even if you want to (or switching is very costly and complicated). Another is to dictate to the phone manufacturers which feature they can or can not have on a given market. For example, some new mobile phones have two models: one for the European market with wifi, and another for the US market without wifi, because the US carriers do not want people to be able to use wifi from their phones.
Both of these practices have been going on for a while and everyone seems to have drifted into thinking that this is “how things always were” and this is how they should be.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We at Skype think different. We obviously want to run Skype on as many mobile devices as possible, and it would help us if the networks and devices were more open. We continue to believe in innovation and consumer choice and we believe that many people would choose Skype for calling over their mobile phone’s data plan or wifi if they had a choice. Choice and competition is always good for users.
We want to open up a dialog with users, wireless carriers, phone manufacturers and the other related parties in the US. So on February 20 (just this week), we filed a petition with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that describes our thinking on this and suggests to open an industry forum to discuss the situation and possible ways forward. (FCC is the government body in the US that regulates wireless carriers.) Download the petition here.
I really encourage you to take a look at the full petition text if you’re interested in this industry and matter. I read it myself — it’s not some horrible zillion-page legal mumbo-jumbo, it’s just 36 pages of quite readable human-language text (there are some “legal” footnotes and such, but you can just skip those) with plenty of links and background information. Here is my version of some more interesting bits and pieces from it.
Historical background and where we are today
This discussion is actually nothing new. We had exactly the same discussion in the 1960s in the US about whether or not you could attach any device to your phone network. The phone companies didn’t initially want this, as it was obviously more profitable for them to allow you only use (buy) their own devices (phones). The FCC interfered and said it’s OK to connect any device, as long as it does not harm the network. This decision was the key in driving innovation in phone networks. Eventually, it made possible to have new types of communication like fax and dial-up internet connections. Who knows, maybe dial-up internet (and thus internet in general as we know it today, as it was the dial-up connection that really made it popular) would never have happened if the phone companies had got their way.
It happened again in the 1990s with broadband internet connections where the broadband service providers wanted to say what device you could or could not use. And again, FCC stepped in and said that the network providers should not dictate to users which devices they may or may not use. And now it works great. These days, if you buy an Internet connection to your home or office, what you typically get is just a cable. You are then free to choose which types of devices from which manufacturer to connect, be it a simple wireless router from company X, or an advanced router plus firewall from Y, and maybe some extra switches and firewalls etc, as long as the devices are compatible with the network’s basic technical standards and protocols. This has been great for innovation and competition and ultimately users, as the broadband devices keep getting cheaper and better and everybody wins.
So now we have a situation where you have a lot of freedom in the wired phone and broadband networks, but if it becomes wireless, then suddenly you have to do everything as the service provider says and you have much less freedom and choice. You cannot really decide which features or applications to use on your phone because some of them have been intentionally disabled or crippled by the wireless carrier. And your phone is often connected to one particular carrier and it’s expensive and inconvenient to switch. Or, a cool new phone model may be exclusively offered only by a carrier you don’t happen to like, and have a choice of whether to not buy the phone and remain with your preferred carrier but worse phone, or to buy the new phone and be bound to a carrier that you don’t like. (It’s better in Europe where you can typically buy an “unlocked” full-featured phone and decide yourself which network to connect it to.)
With this petition, we are suggesting to re-examine the situation in the US and open a dialog with all the involved parties.
How can you help?
Feel free to re-post this on your own blog, forum, homepage or wherever you can. Talk with your friends. Spread the word.
There are some other things you can read to learn more about what some people call “wireless net neutrality”. If you don’t know them yet, learn more about professors Tim Wu at Columbia Law School and Larry Lessig at Stanford Law School, as we have been working together with them on this. Here are some more links that we recommend.
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