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Monday, August 13, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Room to roam

Seattle Times technology reporter

Google is searching for a way to cut some of its wires to the Internet and go mobile.

In doing so, it asked the government for help. And some argue that the gatekeeper to the wireless world — the Federal Communications Commission — complied with Google's request by setting conditions and rules on the next block of airwaves to be auctioned off. Airwaves are considered gold to carriers, which need permission from the government to run wireless services invisibly through the air.

The events have sparked an intense discussion among wireless operators, trade associations, analysts and entrepreneurs who are all theorizing on how the rules will play out and what impact they will have on the industry.

To be sure, many of the issues are steeped in technical jargon that a consumer will never have to deal with, or notice. But, simply put, the debate centers on whether the mobile networks should be more open, similar to the Internet, or continue to be tightly held private networks controlled by the likes of AT&T, Verizon Wireless and other wireless operators.

Here's an overview of the major players, what they are saying and how the issue could affect consumers down the road:

Q: What is at issue?

A: For any company or organization to operate a wireless service, it needs access to a sliver of airwaves, or so-called "spectrum," much of which is controlled by the federal government. The FCC will conduct an auction in January to sell rights to a swath of the spectrum that's ideal for providing wireless broadband services. Technically, that swath is the 700 megahertz band.

The spectrum will become available after television companies vacate airwaves they don't need as they convert to digital or high-definition television. That deadline is Feb. 17, 2009.

Q: What is Google asking for?

A: Google and other companies, including Frontline Wireless of Greensboro, N.C., proposed to the FCC that a portion of the spectrum being sold in January should be set aside for an "open access" network, one that would allow consumers to choose the device and applications they want regardless of whether a network operator has approved them.

Q: What is open access?

A: Google breaks down open access into four parts: conditions related to applications, devices, services and networks. The idea is that consumers should be able to download whatever content they want and use the handheld device of their choice. Operators should be able to purchase capacity on that network wholesale and the networks should interconnect with others.

Google said that if the FCC adopted these conditions, it would commit a minimum of $4.6 billion to bidding in the upcoming auction.

The FCC, pushed in part by Chairman Kevin Martin, adopted an order that mirrors much of Google's requests, with a notable exception: It did not require a network operator to provide access to other companies at wholesale.

The FCC argued instead that the rules will allow for a more-open wireless platform that will allow devices and applications of different types to work together; such "interoperability" can be a problem today. The agency also said the changes will encourage innovation and investments.

Rick Whitt, Google's telecom and media counsel in Washington, D.C., said whether Google will still participate in the auction is up in the air.

Q: Does open access mean the network will be free (think Wi-Fi)?

A: No. Wireless networks that cover wide areas are extremely expensive to build.

Q: Will the Apple iPhone run on the open network?

A: Not necessarily. For a device to work on this open network, it will need a 700 MHz radio built into it and it will have to use the correct core technology, said Avi Greengart, a principal analyst at Current Analysis. The iPhone, as well as virtually every device out there today, doesn't have a 700 MHz radio. In addition, Apple has an exclusive arrangement on the iPhone with AT&T, one of the largest operators of wireless networks — and open access doesn't prohibit exclusive phone arrangements.

Q: Does open access mean the network will be like Wi-Fi?

A: No. Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum — airwaves not controlled by the federal government. Wireless networks are more similar to TV, said Mark Donovan an analyst at M:Metrics, the Seattle-based mobile measurement firm. Using a Wi-Fi, DSL or cable connection, you can easily post a video on the Internet for anyone to see in minutes, but getting the same video on television — or widely accessible on a cellphone or mobile device — would take considerable effort.

Under the open-access rules, a new TV station, software program or video game would not need approval from the wireless network operator for widespread distribution. Still, there would be no guarantees that an application loaded onto an open-access device would work; that's one reason wireless carriers approve devices and applications today.

"I can't download software that will necessarily hurt my BlackBerry because they won't let me do it," said Andrew Seybold, a wireless analyst and consultant who works closely with U.S. mobile carriers.

"The whole idea of the open-access thing came from the Internet," he said. And he doesn't have any problem "with the Internet people, except their perception of open access is that I can go anywhere and do anything and do it for free. That doesn't work in wireless world," Seybold said,

Q: What companies support open access?

A: The list goes beyond Google and Frontline Wireless.

Nokia, the largest handset maker in the world, said it commends the decision.

Some entrepreneurs are also supporting it. "I'm an entrepreneur, and I'm mad as hell that I'm required to get permission to innovate in the wireless market," Jason Devitt, co-founder of Skydeck in San Mateo, Calif., said in congressional testimony. "I don't have to ask Verizon for permission to attach a computer to their network, or to launch a Web site, but for some reason that I can't understand, I have to ask for permission to attach a computer or computers they now call phones to their wireless network and have to ask permission to run services and applications on those phones."

Q: Who opposes open access?

A: Verizon Wireless does not agree with all of the conditions set on the spectrum auction, but referred questions to CTIA — The Wireless Association, a lobbying firm for the industry.

Spokesman Joseph Farren said its unfair for the FCC to set limits on the spectrum being auctioned off. By doing so, he said, the FCC has decreased the inherent value of this swath relative to the spectrum purchased in previous auctions since those purchasers are free to do as they please with the airwaves.

"Competition is good, but don't try to rig the auction to benefit one potential bidder," he said, referencing Google's interest in bidding a minimum of $4.6 billion to purchase spectrum in the January auction. "The rules the commission has adopted are tailor-made to accommodate Google's business plan, and it potentially makes it less attractive to other bidders who have a different business plan."

Q: Is this about getting Google applications or a Google phone into the marketplace?

A: Whitt, the company's counsel, declined to comment on whether Google is working on a phone, as many in the industry have speculated. As far as its experiences so far in mobile, he said: "We've been pleased with the iPhone and on the BlackBerry side. ... Those have been good experiences, leading the way for an open marketplace, but other carriers are not so forthcoming."

Q: Will an open-access network change the industry or consumer choices?

A: Seybold says yes, but not as directly as you may suspect.

"I think the iPhone is a disaster, but it will change the world of handsets," he said. "They made a lot of mistakes and didn't do some of the things they should have, but it will change things."

Similarly, Seybold said, the open-access debate "may result in changes and the way networks do business, and the type of access that's available. What it won't change — it won't turn wireless network into a place to get a free connection."

From the perspective of M:Metrics' Donovan, open access could generate a lot of new ideas.

"I believe if you create an environment of... innovation, you can move mountains and create experiences that you never imagined could happen," he said. "That's not happening in mobile."

Current Analysis' Greengart said it's possible to see substantive changes if investors are willing to put up the millions needed for the network and for new devices and applications.

"We could see some really interesting devices or services that a carrier wouldn't have thought to approve or gotten to approve because two guys in a garage built it and they called AT&T, but weren't able to get the right person on the phone," he said.

Q: Are there any similar open-access networks today?

A: Sprint Nextel and Clearwire, based in Kirkland, are building a nationwide network using a wireless broadband technology called WiMax. Their business models are not completely clear now, but from what they've said so far, it looks to be similar to DSL and cable broadband services — in other words, an open-access approach.

WiMax is being portrayed as "personal broadband," with individuals (rather than households) signing up for subscriptions. Under that approach, that an individual could connect to the Internet from any WiMax-enabled device he or she uses, including computers, phones or cameras.

As if a sign of what's to come, Sprint Nextel named Google to develop its portal for its new WiMax service — as conditions on the spectrum auction were debated.

"If you take a look at the Sprint/Clearwire network being built out on WiMax, that's going to be as close as you are going to get to open access network," Seybold said. "It's just the Internet wirelessly. You are able to buy any devices, sign up for a subscription and put those devices on the network. That's open access to me."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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