Cartefone for wireless?

by on February 12, 2007 · 10 comments

Tim Wu will be presenting his paper “Wireless Net Neutrality” at an FTC workshop on network access tomorrow on Wednesday. (BTW: The workshop is free and open to the public.) Basically he’s arguing for Carterfone to be applied to the cell phone industry. The Washington Post has a write-up of the ideas behind the paper and reaction from both sides of the debate.

Until federal regulators issued a landmark ruling in 1968, Americans could not own the telephones in their homes, nor attach answering machines or other devices to them. Now, a growing number of academics and consumer activists say it’s time to deliver a similar groundbreaking jolt to the cellphone industry, possibly triggering a new round of customer options and technical innovations to rival the one that produced faxes, modems and the Internet.

Wireless carriers, which limit what customers may do with their phones, say the move is unnecessary and potentially harmful. But in articles, blogs and speeches, a number of researchers are asking why the companies are allowed to force consumers to buy new handsets when they change carriers, pay a specified carrier to transfer photos from a camera phone, or download ring tones or music from one provider only.

Carterfone was a great decision when it applied to Ma Bell, the quintessential monopoly, and wouldn’t compute for today’s wireless carriers. True, cell phones are locked (except when they’re not, as the article points out, because carriers will often unlock them for you when your contract expires). The one thing the article doesn’t mention is that cell phones are also subsidized. You can always buy an unlocked phone for a premium. I would love to see a greater market in unlocked phones, but if there’s no demand from consumers, I’ll just have to wait along with the proponents of regulation. Question: Unlocked phones are the norm in Asia and Europe. How are they priced there? How do service plan prices compare to U.S.?

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