by Matt Stoller, Fri Apr 13, 2007 at 07:51:59 AM EDT
I'm on break, but I want to highlight this editorial from the LA Times on a coming spectrum auction that is the next stage of the net neutrality fight. Here's the deal. Right now, dropped calls, high hidden charges, bad phones, poor and costly wireless internet and roaming costs are all symptoms of a wireless monopoly held by a few big cell phone companies. Essentially they don't care about you moving to another competitor with better service because you really just can't.
Verizon and AT&T run a digital plantation where they don't let phones and features on their network they can't control. It's a permission system - if you want to use your phone on a Verizon network, you have to get permission. It's a lot like cable operators, and if it's not theirs they don't want it. This is why wireless service is expensive, why it sucks with dropped calls and why you can do things in Europe and Japan like pay for sodas with your phone but you can't do them here. It's also why roaming charges are so high. There's effectively a wireless monopoly, which means that you can only get an iPhone if you use AT&T wireless. And if you are a non-profit that wants to let people text you money at a rally and have it go on that person's phone bill, Verizon and AT&T will happily grab half the cash meant for you and take 180 days to get you the balance. So, at say, Obama's 20,000 person rallies, there are high barriers to having supporters get involved at the rally since everything the campaign wants to do has to be approved either directly or indirectly by Verizon or AT&T. This is true at every single music concert or public event in the country. An entire mobile economy is going unused here because of this predatory corruption, though in the rest of the world the mobile economy is racing ahead.
Here's why this could soon change. The FCC is about to auction off a whole lot of really nice spectrum that could completely blow the lid off this system. It's possible that if the FCC is fair, we could get a wireless broadband wholesaler, which would simply rent their network to whoever wants it for whatever purpose they want it. You'd be able to plug your phone into your computer and get broadband. Cell phone and broadband service would be instantly cheap and universal, getting around redlining that denies broadband to poor and rural areas. There would be fewer dropped calls. Roaming charges would drop dramatically. You could pay for things with your phone (or any mobile device you can invent). You could use any phone for any network, and download ringtones easily. And the big national telcos would actually have to compete with all of this.
Silicon Valley is buzzing about the potential here, as are media reform groups (and smaller wireless companies). This is all part of the move to take back public airwaves from the people that give Imus-types privileged positions in public discourse. This is genuinely revolutionary stuff, and the FCC is going to rule on it soon. Hopefully we can get Ed Markey and John Dingell to hold hearings and force Chairman Martin to open up the spectrum.
There are real allies here, just as there were in the net neutrality fight. In fact you can consider this part of the net neutrality fight, part of protecting and expanding the digital commons. And because of the anti-redlining and cost reduction components, there is a much larger coalition that could be formed here. Every non-profit in the country has an interest in open access. And so does every cell phone user who had a dropped call, or who wants wireless broadband for low cost.
After all, these are the public airwaves, our airwaves. However much he doesn't like it, they don't belong to Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg.
UPDATE: In related news, Verizon is patenting the internet.