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Net Neutrality And The Cellular Networks

While senators in Washington mull over issues of net neutrality as they pertain to the terrestrial cable and telco networks, eBay VoIP provider Skype has asked the FCC to open up the cellular networks to outside applications and devices. While obviously self serving, the petition stirs up Spectrum Email the debate on just what kind of role consumer choice should play on the public airwaves.

Specifically, Skype is asking the FCC to apply the Carterphone ruling of 1968 to the cellular communications industry of today. Prior to that decision, AT&T determined what type of device could be hooked up to their network, typically a phone device that was sold exclusively by them.

As a result of the Carterphone ruling, the phone company’s control of the network stopped at the telephone jack. Consumers could choose from an onslaught of new devices and technologies entering the market. From answering machines, to fax machines, and eventually the modem – a major factor in the Internet boom of the nineties.

Since the FCC began auctioning off the public radio spectrum in the 1990s, the growth of the cell phone industry has mushroomed, changing the very face of telecommunications and the way people communicate worldwide. New technologies flourished, and today, the cellular networks can only carry voice, but are themselves an extension of the Internet.

Developers and device manufacturers have come up with mobile applications such as text messaging, email, full blown internet browsing, music and video down and uploading, mobile office applications, VoIP and more. The new generation of cell phones are now called smart phones, and can do just about anything your computer can do. Handsets are built with multiple radios that can access cellular, WiFi and Bluetooth frequencies, and can seamlessly switch a call from a cellular network to the much cheaper Internet via VoIP over a WiFi connection.

U.S. Cell Phone Denial of Services

While many of these applications and capabilities are available on overseas networks, in the US it’s a different story. As cited by Dr. Tim Wu in his paper Wireless Net Neutrality, “…the cellular phones widely available in the United States are just a small fraction of the phones available in the world.”

As it stands today in the US, the cellular industry has boiled down to four major carriers based on two different technologies, and they all guard their networks jealously. Verizon and Sprint use the CDMA standard (Code Division Multiple Access), and AT&T (formerly Cingular Wireless) and T-Mobile employ the GSM standard (Global System Mobile), which currently enjoys about 73% world market share.

As with AT&T before Carterphone, all of the carriers sell their own phones, and block access to their networks from the others to varying degrees, using different methods. The CDMA phones use an Electronic Serial Number (ESN) that is registered by the carrier network. Verizon will not allow a phone on their network that is not sold by them. Sprint will allow you to register a non Sprint device, but strongly discourages it and offers no technical support for such phones.

GSM networks use a SIM card, a chip that contains subscriber information and is designed to allow phones to switch networks by inserting the SIM card of the appropriate carrier. Phones sold by AT&T and T-Mobile come with the SIM card disabled, effectively locking them to the network. It is possible, though not easy, to unlock these phones and is also legal to do so in the United States. Not wanting to push the envelope too much, AT&T and T-Mobile allow the unlocking of their phones after an initial period of ownership.

In an attempt to keep users on their networks, and thus revenues up, the cellcos have crippled applications that others enjoy world wide. The very popular activities of downloading music, pictures, and video are indeed available in the US cellular market, but try to email or upload to a location not approved, and you’ll likely find your efforts blocked. You can, for an additional fee of course, upload and share your media to web sites approved by the carrier.

Bluetooth wireless technology lets devices communicate with each other over a low band short range radio frequency. Bluetooth enabled printers, computers, mobile phones and wireless headsets, allow users to up and download media, send files and photos to a printer, and talk on your cell phone hands free. Yet US carriers have at some time or another crippled many of the features available through Bluetooth technology.

Probably the most disruptive technology for the cellular industry is WiFi. The 802.11b/g standard allows for a broadband wireless connection suitable for email, web browsing, inter device communication, and the dreaded, extremely cheap, voice over Internet Protocol. Internet telephony can bypass the cellular networks by sending voice directly over the Internet through a landline or a WiFi connection.

Device manufacturers can and do incorporate WiFi technology into their handsets, but the cellular carriers in the US have resisted tooth and nail by crippling WiFi in their devices, and demanding that manufacturers make WiFi-less versions of their phones for the American market. While it is technologically possible to load third party applications such as Skype onto a mobile phone, to do so on a WiFi capable cell phone would threaten the very business model of the cellcos.

Today, you will find very few cell phones in America that are WiFi capable. Just now, cell phones are becoming available in Europe that can operate on the cellular network as well as corporate wireless LANs, integrating into the company IP/PBX telephony system.

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