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Google: Mobile operators want to block our apps

Mobile operators risk being overwhelmed when IP brings closed networks crashing down, Silicon Valley pioneers warn
Written by David Meyer, Contributor and  Graeme Wearden, Contributor

One of Google's senior executives has criticised mobile phone operators for trying to prevent their users from accessing Internet applications.

Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google, revealed on Monday that operators have lobbied the search giant, asking it to stop people from accessing Google Mobile Maps.

Google Mobile Maps gives access to interactive maps and satellite images, and also includes search results and details about local businesses. It also provides detailed directions to a location picked by the user.

On Monday, Sacca told an event at Oxford University's Said Business School that "we've been getting notes from some of the telco carriers who are saying 'look, you need to stop our customers from downloading this thing'."

"They're inserting themselves in between you and an application that you want. I think that has scary, scary implications," added Sacca, who was appearing on a panel titled Silicon Valley Comes To Oxford.

Sacca also criticised mobile operators who claim to provide unlimited internet access, but ban their users from using applications such as VoIP or streaming video.

Several other dot-com entrepeneurs also warned that the mobile industry faced massive challenges, and cannot expect to keep its users tightly controlled indefinitely.

Matt Cohler, vice-president of strategy at Facebook, said that the major question facing mobile operators is what it does "when IP really takes over the remaining portions of the bridge that it hasn't yet".

Reid Hoffman, chief executive of LinkedIn, was even more critical.

"I think it's inevitably just a matter of time before general IP and open protocols get to mobile phones. And it's like 'are you sure you want to be standing there when the dam finally goes down?'," Hoffman told the event.

"I think a lot of people in Silicon Valley are agitating to work out 'how do we take the dam down faster?'," Hoffman added.

Earlier this month, 3 launched a service which gives users flat-rate access to mobile broadband services. Analysts believe this is an indication that the mobile industry has realised that it can't keep its customers trapped in "walled gardens" where they can't freely access Internet services independently of those authorised by the operator.

But, speaking this week, a senior Vodafone executive claimed that VoIP wasn't a major threat to the mobile industry.

"VoIP is not a service. It's a technology which provides only one thing — cheaper calls — and we can provide cheaper calls very easily by cutting prices," Bobby Rao, Vodafone corporate strategy director, told journalists and analysts on Wednesday.

"We think the best way to offer people cheaper calling plans is to offer them cheaper calling plans... The value customers are looking for is not VoIP," Rao added.

A webcast of the Oxford evening panel discussion is available.

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