Monday, August 20, 2007

Google Throws Down the Open Network Gauntlet

There are some interesting movements afoot in airwaves. As the architecture of television transmission changes from analogue to digital, a significant chunk of the regulated radio spectrum (the 700MHz section, precisely) has opened up for new "development." To quickly establish who will have access to this spectrum and what rights those individuals will have, the FCC has opened up an auction. The initial intent for this over-the-air "bandwidth" is to create the next high-speed wireless network (similar to the system used by 3G phones). What no one expected was for Google's name to come up in the list of bidders. In fact, even more surprisingly, Google has pledged $4.6 billion to the auction, with a few stipulations.

Until now, only the big telecom companies (ala Verizon and AT&T) have been able or interested in securing a part of the wireless spectrum. Because of this, the usage of said spectrum has been rather stifled by big companies that want complete control of their networks. Consumers can only use the phones that their carriers say are ok, can rarely modify the software on those phones, and generally have to operate in a kind of walled garden that is controlled by their carrier. Google's stipulations directly confront these "locked-up" rules with a set of "open" rules, elaborated in their public letter to the FCC:
  • Open applications: Consumers should be able to download
    and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  • Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize
    a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they
  • Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be
    able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale
    basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  • Open networks: Third parties (like internet service
    providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible
    point in a 700 MHz licensee's wireless network.
In a sense, these rules would allow any users to have any standardized phone they wanted, running any available software or applications, and get to choose who they would like to get their service from. Aside from the euphoria you are probably experiencing, you may be wondering, "Why does Google care about this at all?" The answer is simple. Google has made its empire from advertisements that accompany its spectacular search page. If phones and software on those phones are opened up, Google will have found yet another market to infiltrate with those same ads. Also, they believe that, given a choice, users will use Google as much on their phones as they would on their PCs.

In response to Google's ground shaking demand for openness, the FCC has decided to accept two of Google's four rules. They are supporting the requirements for applications and devices (so unlocked phones are a distinct possibility), but they denied the request for services and networks to be sold off by a wholesaler. Of course, if Google wins the bid, it can do all the wholesaling it wants, so some would say that the decision certainly favors Google. Even still, Ars Technica reports that the bid is not until January 16, 2008, so Google and its competitors have some time to decide their long term strategies for this new set of wavelengths.

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The content of this page is completely the creation and opinion of James Rogers. He is affiliated with Connect Mason and formerly Broadside Online but the relationship only governs republication, not content.

Further, in the interest of full disclosure, this author holds minor financial investments in Apple, Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices.