The beginning of July 2007 held two things which caught my attention and may prove to be an interesting milestone in the road towards open access. The first was big-scale. Last week Mr Kevin Martin, the chairman of the US regulator, the FCC, came out and told a US newspaper what he has in mind for the 700 MHz spectrum auction in late 2008. He talked about an ‘open network’ which would permit any wireless device to connect to it, and which would place no limits on the services that could be offered across it or by whom. In other words, it seems he wants a pure mobile web, where customers can download any broadband application, and have no restrictions on the content that is served or on the devices that would be deployed by end users to access them. It sounds to me like a flat rate, open IP architecture where devices will need only the most cursory adherence to the air interface, but where applications are pure IP, and most services are delivered over the web. Indeed, as one commentator has said, “It sounds like the halcyon days of the Personal Computer, where just about anyone could write an application.”
If Chairman Martin gets his way, this will spark the beginning of the end of the cellular walled garden as we know it, and offer a form of wireless network neutrality - at least in this slither of spectrum. He made passing reference to the idea that no downloadable software should be illegal, or should be able to harm the network, but apart from that hinted that there would be no restrictions allowed by the operator on applications – a far cry from the recently launched Apple iPhone, which is locked onto the closed AT&T network!
This would not only create a challenge for bidders, and give the whip hand to device makers and software suppliers, but in giving way to a period of wireless innovation along the lines of the first days of the internet, it would put huge competitive pressure on existing services in other spectrum that is not regulated in this way, that they follow suit. But you can imagine, the vested interests of the existing mobile community are already up in arms at this idea. Their strongest counter argument appears to be that if Chairman Martin persists with this ‘open access’ obligation, then they will certainly NOT be bidding. And if, as they expect, others also refrain, then the competition for the spectrum will be substantially diminished and the likely revenue to the Treasury massively reduced. Given that the only means a winning mobile operator has of recouping its bid costs in this government inspired spectrum auctions, is to load the tariff paid by end-users, we all ought to see this prospect as a positive gain. Indeed, it raises the entire question of the appropriateness of using an unrestricted auction process as an effective means of allocating spectrum … but that is a big issue better addressed elsewhere.
However, Kevin Martin describes the auction as providing the elusive “third pipe” to the home and said that he was concerned that overseas network customers are benefiting from greater innovation and thought it was about time the US public got the same treatment, and specifically referred to the idea of US operators stripping WiFi out of handsets that were designed to work with it, and locking phones so they only work with one network, a criticism that has been driven to the fore by the Apple iPhone as hackers this week have tried to find the code that ties it to the AT&T network, so that “gray” imports of iPhones can be sold all over the world.
At the other end of the scale was my experience in Catalonia where I was invited to attend and speak at the WSFII SAX2007 gathering arranged by guifi.net. This remarkable open access network has been inspired by a small local team under the visionary zeal of Ramon Roca. He has a serious ‘day job’ with Oracle but as a concerned citizen of his rural community, he has been instrumental in giving birth to a wireless OPLAN of truly impressive organic growth. With well over 5,000 people a day accessing the network for one purpose or another and in excess of 3,000 nodes, this is a glowing example of what can be accomplished by carefullly planning a business model and technical strategy appropriate to the local situation. And if you know the beautiful area around Barcelona in Catelonia, it is not exactly short on hills! So congratulations to the guifi.net team and the citizens they serve – they are a fine example to the world of what simple determination and action can achieve. But while I was there, I attended a simple ceremony to ‘open’ a new radio mast constructed above the hilltop village of St Bartomeu del Grau and financed by the Catalan public authority. Sure, the mast will be used by the conventional mobile operators BUT … the right of the OPLAN network to site one or more antennae on that same mast is also specifically assured. The world needs more ‘open access’ antenna towers!