When the digital television transition wraps up in February 2009, television stations will be required to give back the spectrum that is currently being used for analog television broadcasts. That spectrum will be awarded to the winners of an auction to be held next year. In a Forbes article published last month, Wu proposed that the FCC impose a “simple requirement” on the auction winners: “give consumers the right to attach any safe device (meaning it does no harm) to the wireless network that uses that spectrum.”
Without that rule, Wu argues, wireless network carriers will use their control over the platform to stifle competition and innovation in both the handset market and the market for wireless applications. Wu notes that some wireless carriers have crippled the phones they sell to prevent cannibalization of the carriers’ existing products and that the process for getting carriers’ approval for a new wireless application is too expensive and cumbersome for the small start‐ups that often produce the most innovative products.
Wu’s solution might sound simple, but as with any regulatory proposal, the devil is in the details. From Wu’s brief article, it’s not clear exactly what shape his proposed rules would take, but some hints can be found in a paper he published in February with the New America Foundation.
In that paper, Wu concedes that two of the current incumbent wireless carriers-AT&T and T‐Mobile‐already allow customers to attach any phone to their network that complies with the GSM standard. Those carriers do not provide subsidies or tech support for unapproved devices, but they don’t ban them from their networks either. If it’s already being done, there isn’t much sense in requiring it. Wu’s proposal must be more than a simple requirement that networks not actively block unapproved phones. What he appears to be proposing is more ambitious. In his paper, he describes it as a “cellular Carterfone” rule, after a famous 1968 FCC decision that opened up the monopoly AT&T telephone network to devices provided by third parties. His rule would “define a basic interface to which any equipment manufacturer could build a mobile device and sell to consumers.”
Getting federal regulators to settle on the design of an interface for wireless devices would be quite a complex challenge, of course, carrying with it no guarantee of success. In Wu’s 40‐page February paper, he conceded, “This report, obviously, cannot address the full set of technical issues involved,” continuing: