Wireless carriers crow about openness

At this year's CTIA Wireless conference, the major carriers all talked about the importance of opening their networks -- but at their own pace

The message from the big carriers at this year's CTIA Wireless conference was crystal clear: We're opening up as fast as we can, just don't push us.

From keynote speeches to demonstrations to press luncheons, executives from major wireless carriers touted the openness of their networks. Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam spoke about Verizon's Open Development Initiative, which the company launched to entice more device manufacturers and mobile application developers to create products to connect to Verizon's open-access network. AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega, meanwhile, said that his company had become much more willing in recent months to embrace Google's Android platform for its mobile devices. And Sprint CEO Dan Hesse extolled his company's charter membership in the Android-promoting Open Handset Alliance and said that Sprint's goal was "to be the easiest to work with for content developers and applications developers."

But while carriers were eager to show their newfound appreciation for open networks, they also made a point of saying that they would open up at their own pace. During his opening keynote address, for instance, McAdam railed against the "clear and present danger" that government regulations could pose for the wireless industry. In particular McAdam said that the recent moves toward openness were proof that wireless markets should be left to function on their own, and that the wireless industry was evolving far too quickly for the government to regulate it.

"To regulate this business is like taking a Polaroid snapshot of an industry moving at full-motion video speeds," he said. "By the time that film develops, it's no longer relevant to the environment that we're in."

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin followed McAdam's address by announcing that he would urge his fellow commissioners to dismiss a petition filed by Skype last year that asked the commission to force carriers to completely open up their networks. Martin said it would be "premature" to force government action against the carriers in light of their recent support for more open networks, and that he didn't believe in slapping industrywide open-network requirements on every carrier.

The carriers' recent open-access concessions have come from a mix of public pressure and market incentives to allow third-party devices and applications onto their network. Some have speculated that the carriers have been opening up their networks on their terms as a way to preempt government action and accrue political capital for the much bigger fight over network neutrality. The carriers, of course, insist that opening their networks was purely a market-driven decision based on customer demand for innovative new applications and devices, as well as infrastructure investments that have given them the ability to support more third-party features. No matter what their motivations, though, carriers have clearly made an effort to incorporate openness into their brand image. But how much -- and how quickly -- carriers decide to open up is unclear.

Open networks weren't the only hot topic at this year's CTIA Wireless, which drew 40,000 attendees and 1,090 exhibitors. Other popular themes were included as well. 

3G and 4G mobile broadband technologies were discussed constantly, with standards WiMAX and LTE drawing a majority of the attention. Japanese carrier DoCoMo, for example, demonstrated an LTE system that has achieved a download speed of up to 250Mbps, more than 30 times the download speeds currently available on the carrier's network in Japan. Motorola, meanwhile, dipped its toes into both high-speed mobile standards by introducing WiMAX customer premises equipment and demonstrating a handoff between 3G and LTE. Nokia, on the other hand, showed off a WiMAX version of its N810 tablet that will become available in conjunction with Sprint's official launch of Xohm later this year.

While the buzz about WiMAX was generally positive, there could be some storm clouds on the horizon. Despite the fact that Sprint, WiMAX's biggest booster among U.S. carriers, reaffirmed its commitment to the technology, the carrier also acknowledged that mobile backhaul issues were delaying its nationwide rollout. Sprint CTO Barry West also acknowledged that Sprint's WiMAX trials in Chicago and Washington, D.C., have not performed as well as he would have liked.

It's one thing to dream about delivering mobile data at broadband speeds; it's another to actually follow through on it. In order to give ISPs an idea of just what capabilities they'll need to meet increasing consumer demand, Infonetics Research and Telecommunications Magazine hosted a day-long conference on upgrading mobile backhaul for 3G and 4G services. The consensus: ISPs will need to upgrade to IP/Ethernet backhaul. Representatives from Axera Networks, Ceterus Networks, and DragonWave all presented their companies' respective approaches to upgrading backhaul for next-generation technologies, while other panels considered the optimal ways to upgrade backhaul for ensure mobile WiMAX and mobile video quality.

Months after its release, the iPhone is still a hot topic: The iPhone's success has led carriers, phone manufacturers, and software companies scrambling to produce a comparable platform or device. As one CTIA panel concluded, the iPhone has led to a proliferation of smartphones in both the United States and Europe.

In an attempt to take the iPhone's success in the consumer market head-on, Microsoft demonstrated new features for its Windows Mobile 6.1 platform that the company said were designed to meld the needs of both work and leisure on wireless devices and to help create a device that can be used for professional and personal purposes. One of the new features for the platform will be a mobile Internet Explorer browser that will let users view full Web pages rather than mobile-optimized pages, and to also give them the ability to pan and zoom around pages. Microsoft Windows Mobile Product Manager Derek Snyder also said Windows Mobile is incorporating Adobe Flash technology onto the new Internet Explorer mobile that will let users watch YouTube videos on Windows Mobile devices just as they would on desktop computers.

Sprint, meanwhile, debuted an iPhone-like device of its own, as CEO Dan Hesse demonstrated the new Samsung Instinct that will be offered exclusively through Sprint. Hesse said the Instinct will be the carrier's first EV-DO Rev A device directed toward consumers, and will feature peak downlink speeds of 3.1Mbps and peak uplink speeds of 1.8Mbps. The phone will also feature full touch-screen features and a virtual qwerty keypad, and will offer a "Voice to Action" button that will give users the ability to voice-activate e-mail, texting, Web search, and other applications.

"The end result is a great-looking phone that provides the proof point that the wireless company of the future exists now," said Hesse. "Speed, content, industry-leading applications, and simplicity. All of this will be available at a very competitive price this summer."

This story, "Wireless carriers crow about openness" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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