I couldn’t say for certain, but I’d be willing to take a good guess that there are cordless phones somewhere in the homes of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate.
The next time one of the commissioners picks up that phone, he or she should give some thought to how it came to be there. Chances are someone in the family bought that phone in a big-box electronics store, picking it out from shelf after shelf of phones. Or they could have ordered it online from dozens of more choices.
Cordless phones have gone through a significant metamorphosis in recent years. They started out at 900 MHz, went to 2.4 GHz, to 5.8 GHz. They went from having a big antenna to no visible antenna. Consumers once bought one phone. Now they can buy a set of three phones – a base and two others. The speakerphone, long a staple of the business desktop telephone, is now part of the cordless revolution.
Now, here is the key question for those commissioners to ask themselves: Who gave permission for those telephone manufacturers to bring those advances to market? Who gave the approvals to change the spectrum, or to redesign the antenna or to add extensions or speakerphones? Was it up to AT&T, because the company was feeling good about “openness” one day? Did Verizon give its blessing, perhaps so that it could see how the equipment was made, while taking eight weeks to make up its mind?
One answer will suffice for all of those questions: No. No permission was needed from any company for any device. Let’s go further. What telephone company gave permission for the FCC to operate a Web site? Not one, just as no telephone company gave anyone permission to offer any online service.
The results from the Cerfian “innovation without permission” explosion are undeniable – to everyone except the majority of the FCC. Do they think this all came about by the goodness of an industry’s heart? Apparently so, judging from Martin’s remarks at the cellular industry trade show in Las Vegas.
Martin observed: “Verizon Wireless has committed to open its entire network to devices and applications of consumers’ own choosing. More and more wireless providers, including T-Mobile and Sprint through their participation in the Open Handset Alliance, and AT&T, are also embracing more openness in terms of devices and applications. Indeed, in looking at the program for this conference, I was excited to see a number of educational sessions and panels focusing on the issue of openness. This interest now appears to be shared across the industry.”
So, based on some announcement or two and on a perceived change of attitude, what Martin calls “the industry’s embrace of a more open wireless platform,” he concluded it would be “premature to adopt any other requirements across the industry.” I, for one, certainly hope the chairman tries to test this attitude by going to his nearest Verizon store and buying an iPhone.
The reason that all of those cordless phones are available, and that the Web exists, is that government made it all possible. Specifically, the FCC in 1968, albeit in a monopoly environment, said that control over equipment by AT&T had to end. It was the government that removed restrictions enabling a new sector of private industry to flourish.
It’s the failure to see government as a market-enabling mechanism that makes so disappointing Martin’s announcement that he wants to dismiss the Skype petition that would bring the wireless world into the freedom of the wireline world.
Martin and his fellow commissioners in the majority see government as a tool to be avoided being used whenever possible. Their one small step in the other direction in the 700 MHz auction has now been completely retraced. The irony is that by dismissing the Skype petition, the FCC is enabling the dreaded “heavy hand of government,” rather than stopping it from throttling the market.
Instead of letting a free and open market blossom in wireless devices and applications as it has on the landline side, the FCC instead has delegated to a massive oligopoly the power to control what is now their market as it wishes.
That’s corporate welfare. It' not the free market that Martin, McDowell and Tate want to see and it’s a shame they won’t use the authority at their disposal to make that market a reality.