The Case of the Missing iPhone: Why Open Networks Would Benefit Rural Consumers
The Case of the Missing iPhone: Why Open Networks Would Benefit Rural Consumers
The Case of the Missing iPhone: Why Open Networks Would Benefit Rural Consumers

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    Apple's iPhone, being sold as it is through exclusive deals with wireless carriers, is currently only available in the US, UK, France, Germany and Austria. While plenty of folks outside of those countries would love to buy an iPhone they can't–at least, not without modifying the device's firmware and violating Apple's end user license agreement (PDF link). Fortunately, it looks like the iPhone is set to become a truly global phenomenon next month. According to carrier announcements, rumors and speculation, the second-generation iPhone–widely expected to be announced during Apple CEO Steve Jobs' keynote at the World Wide Developers Conference in Junemay launch simultaneously in as many as 42 countries worldwide. That means that the device will finally be available in Asia, Australia, Africa, Latin America, Canada and previously unserved markets in Europe. Will there be any corner of the globe left untouched by the iPhone? Sure–just try the faraway locales known as Alaska, Vermont and Arizona.

    You see, the iPhone is offered exclusively in the US by AT&T, which means that you can only purchase an iPhone in areas where AT&T offers service. While AT&T, the nation's largest wireless carrier, offers voice and data services in most major metropolitan markets, there are plenty of places where AT&T service is not available, including rural areas of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming, as well as the entire state of Vermont. If you live in one of these areas and want an iPhone you're out of luck. Even if you drove across state lines to buy the device at an AT&T store, you wouldn't be able to use it for very long, due to provisions in the iPhone service plan that prohibit users from purchasing an iPhone if their home address is outside of AT&T's service area or from spending over 40 percent of their time roaming on other wireless networks. As Ars Technica reports, “AT&T went so far as to warn Alaskan consumers that if they tried to buy an iPhone, the telco would terminate their contracts.”

    So, what's a rural gadget fan to do? Keep his or her fingers crossed and hope that the FCC comes to the rescue, apparently. The Rural Cellular Association (RCA), an industry group representing regional carriers, has filed a petition with the FCC (PDF link), asking the Commission to investigate exclusivity arrangements between handset manufacturers and carriers and to “adopt rules that prohibit such arrangements when contrary to the public interest.” According to the RCA, exclusivity agreements between handset manufacturers and the “big five” wireless telcos–AT&T, Verizon, Sprint-Nextel, T-Mobile, and Alltel–are anticompetitive and only serve to limit handset choices for rural consumers. “The handsets that have been made available to RCA members are basic, low-end handsets without many of the cutting-edge features customers covet,” the petition states. “As a result, the ability of RCA member carriers to compete effectively with the products and services offered by the largest carriers is significantly and unfairly diminished.”

    The RCA's petition serves as yet another reminder why more openness is needed in the wireless industry. While it is often argued that a wireless carrier should allow any device to attach to its network, we mustn't forget that the converse should also be true–a device should be capable of attaching to any network with which it is compatible. This would allow for greater portability and convenience for users and as the RCA's petition points out, would also grant rural consumers access to the latest devices–a compelling case, indeed.

    As it turns out, this might all be a moot point as far as the iPhone is concerned–recent rumors suggest that the second-generation iPhone might be available as an unlocked device, at least in some regions. Still, while this would solve the problem of the locked iPhone, it wouldn't solve the larger problem of exclusivity agreements in general. At the moment, there are a number of other high-profile devices, from companies like LG, Research in Motion (RIM), HTC and Samsung that are only available for use on specific networks. And the exclusivity trend is showing no signs of abating: later this year, when RIM launches their highly-anticipated next-generation devices–the Bold and the Thunder–they will come locked to AT&T and Verizon, respectively.

    While Public Knowledge fully supports the RCA's petition to the FCC, we've got to admit that its chances of being recognized by the commission are pretty slim. Many have tried–and failed–to force the incumbent carriers to open up their networks in the past and you can be sure that the big five will fight this petition tooth and nail. That said, whether or not the FCC chooses to recognize the petition, the RCA has already done us all a service: they've provided us with one of the most compelling arguments seen yet for open wireless networks.