Open(?) Cell Networks in the United States

A week ago, Verizon announced that they will be instituting an “open” network that will allow a person to bring any device that’s CDMA compatible with any phone operating system onto that their network.  This week, AT&T is claiming that their network is already open.  So whose network is more open?

Is it Really Open?

Well, in Verizon’s case, there has been much discussion on exactly what “open” means to them.  It turns out that Verizon is actually segmenting their network and will be placing those folks that use any device, with any operating system, with any application into the segmented network so as to not “interfere” with their regular customers.  There is some logic to this.  You do not want a rouge application sending stuff across your entire network, but they are going to almost completely disallow users on this segmented network to talk to each other.  Basically you get to be on Verizon’s “play” network on your own.  It is like being on the playground at recess and being told you can’t talk to anyone else.  If the information turns out to be true, then Verizon is just attempting to bank on the buzz of the term “open” without really understanding what it means.

Now on to AT&T’s claims.  While the claim that AT&T spokes people are making  about AT&T already being open is true to some degree there are several areas where it lacking.  First and foremost is when it comes to unlocked phones, yes, you can purchase an unlocked phone that has support for the 85oMhz frequency and it will make phone calls just fine on the network.  And in that respect, the network is open.  Any device that supports the required frequency will work on AT&T’s network.  However, getting data services like text messaging, multimedia messaging (including video messaging), and internet browsing to work takes a lot of internet forum searching, or getting really lucky when you call technical support.  This has been a problem on both AT&T and T-Mobile here in the United States.  The reason for the difficulty in getting data to work on your unlocked phone is due largely to the fact that cell providers have moved on from making money on voice and have started making data the primary profit points of their business and no one has done this in a nastier way than AT&T.

Data is the Future

Data is the future of the cell phone industry.  More people are buying smartphones (BlackBerrys, Treos, and even iPhones).  As a result people need unlimited data plans so they can check their email, surf the web, get directions, and about a million other things you are starting to be able to do from your cell phone.  How are companies like Verizon and AT&T packaging these capabilities?  Well you need to have an unlimited data plan that costs 20-30 dollars a month.  Then you need to have a text messaging plan for another 10-20 dollars a month.  And you need to have both of these plans on each phone that needs them on top of the monthly amount you are paying for your daytime minutes.  Just so everyone is aware, most companies have started doing unlimited mobile to mobile text messaging (on AT&T you have to add another $5 per line to have this ability) and some companies have also started no charging for incoming text messages (except for AT&T) .

I can understand companies wanting to make a profit (in fact, that’s part of business), but why do you need to be the last of your market to offer things like free mobile to mobile text messaging.  Why must I pay an extra 5 bucks per line on my account to have the ability to message my friends (all of whom except for 2 have AT&T) for “free” (its not really free right now because I am paying for the ability to do so).  Why should I pay when most of the other providers have gone to making this a typical feature of their basic service?  Granted I won’t be leaving AT&T anytime soon because I have great reception with them (if you don’t, try turning your phone off every couple of days to get tower info updates), not to mention I know a lot about their customer service abilities because I have friends who worked in that department.  Also, I am happy with their overall service.  Companies need to move to some kind of pricing structure that includes data.  Say for instance with my voice plan I can add 20-40 extra dollars a month and get unlimited data on all phones on my account.  That includes web browsing, text messaging, multimedia messaging, and other forms of data.  I am totally okay with making the ability to use my phone as a modem as an extra cost on top of that data addition.  The companies just need to learn how to package data correctly, instead of nickel and dime-ing us to death.

Why Everyone Wants to be Open

When Google announced Android, their phone operating system, their claim is any device on any network.  The idea was to have a common system that cell phone manufacturers and providers could put on devices that would allow people to easily develop for.  The Android system is completely open.  It is based on the Linux kernal, and Google has released a full development kit so people can start developing on the platform before it is even released on a device.  So the idea of an open system has intrigued a lot of people and because Google is the one behind it, Android got a ton of press and face time in front of people who might not normally care that their phone and provider is not “open” and this has scared those providers into wanting to appeal to the masses with an “open” network, even if they really are not that open.

In fact, the recent 700Mhz spectrum auction being conducted by the FCC is a very big deal because a certain part of that spectrum, if won, has to be open to any device, from any provider, with any application.  Meaning a completely open network that spans the entire United States.  If Google wins the auction (which they have officially announced their entry), they will own a completely open network that they can use for voice and data, and being Google, it will be paid for with ads in some way.  But that is okay, because an open network that you can use any device or program on has limitless possibilities and can really change how the airwaves are used in this country.   This is why Verizon and AT&T are pushing the “open” buzzword on their networks.  They are hoping to get people to wonder “why go to Google’s network?  My provider is already open” and then hoping those people really won’t do the research to discover how unopen their network is.

I really do what to see what happens with this 700Mhz spectrum auction.  If Google wins, I want to see what they do with it.  If its cool and allows me to continue getting calls, checking emails, and surfing the net from my mobile device, I’ll probably jump to it.  But its going to be a while before we see what happens with it, even after the auction is all said and done.

Just keep in mind that when someone says their stuff is “open” do the research and make sure it really is open.

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