Will your phone ever be free?

Summary:Walt Mossberg nails the consensus sentiment about wireless connectivity--we all want our phones freed from their carriers.Mossberg writes:It’s intolerable that the same country that produced all this has trapped its citizens in a backward, stifling system when it comes to the next great technology platform, the cellphone.

Walt Mossberg nails the consensus sentiment about wireless connectivity--we all want our phones freed from their carriers.

Mossberg writes:

It’s intolerable that the same country that produced all this has trapped its citizens in a backward, stifling system when it comes to the next great technology platform, the cellphone.

A shortsighted and often just plain stupid federal government has allowed itself to be bullied and fooled by a handful of big wireless phone operators for decades now. And the result has been a mobile phone system that is the direct opposite of the PC model. It severely limits consumer choice, stifles innovation, crushes entrepreneurship, and has made the U.S. the laughingstock of the mobile-technology world, just as the cellphone is morphing into a powerful hand-held computer.

Whether you are a consumer, a hardware maker, a software developer or a provider of cool new services, it’s hard to make a move in the American cellphone world without the permission of the companies that own the pipes. While power in other technology sectors flows to consumers and nimble entrepreneurs, in the cellphone arena it remains squarely in the hands of the giant carriers.

Mossberg likens the wireless carriers to a bunch of Soviet-era bureaucracies. He also strikes a nice balance: Wireless carriers can do whatever they want with their networks, but they shouldn't be allowed to pick your phone.

Amen to that view.

Mossberg concludes with a optimistic view:

We’ve been through this before in the U.S., though many younger readers may not recall it.

Up until the 1970s, when the federal government intervened, you weren’t allowed to buy your own landline phone, and companies weren’t able to innovate, on price or features, in making and selling phones to the public. All Americans were forced to rent clumsy phones made by a subsidiary of the monopoly phone company, AT&T, which claimed that, unless it controlled what was connected to its network, the network might suffer.

Well, the government pried that market open, and the wired phone network not only didn’t collapse, it became more useful and versatile, allowing, among other things, cheap connections to online data services.

I suspect that if the government, or some disruptive innovation, breaks the crippling power that the wireless carriers exert today, the free market will deliver a similar happy ending.

Over the long term, wireless will be opened up. The big question is when. Decades? Should we have to wait forever? What will it take to open up the carriers? That happy ending may be a long time coming.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Networking, Telcos, Wi-Fi

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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