The wireless business as we know it should have ended with the smartphone. It did not because of tight handset control by a small cartel of service providers. This cartel succeeded in locking up the supply of devices largely by denying access to their networks with third party devices. By leveraging a tight knit relationship with regulators and lawmakers, these companies have also successfully locked up the lions share of wireless spectrum for their exclusive use. This same cartel is now clamoring to lock up more of the most useful airwaves even as they hold currently hold spectrum that is not being utilized. Lawmakers who have an unending need to spend more welcome the idea of a new windfall from yet another auction to exclusively assign public airwaves to the cartel.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, wireless carriers are aggressively offloading increased data traffic to narrow, increasingly overcrowded unlicensed WiFi networks. The reason isn’t hard to figure out. If more traffic can be pushed onto someone else’s network they can still charge large without building adequate infrastructure. Why not allow more unlicensed frequencies? Congress wants more money, and the carriers do not want an abundance of open spectrum available. That would encourage a whole new wave of competition that will demand new investment while pushing down prices. Make no mistake about it: The growing abundance of cheap WiFi only tablets and entertainment devices that do more than the carriers’ locked handsets could spell doom if the availability of WiFi grows.
I’m not the lone wolf howling on this open spectrum soapbox. Yochai Benkler at Technology Review seems to agree with me on most major points and has several good ones to add. Open spectrum is not being discussed by lawmakers because it does not benefit them. The next wave of wireless could lift all ships, including those of pols and a cartel. They need to get out of the way to make it happen, and they need to hear from all of us to make it so.