ThoughtPiece: Wireless Net Neutrality

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What were the results? Professor Wu explains:

The 1968 Carterfone right to attach devices to home networks is perhaps the fundamental consumer right in telecom, and indeed its consequences have been historic. The attachment right is broadly celebrated by policy analysts of every ideological persuasion, who recognize the Carterfone principle as a central tenet of a competitive telecommunications policy. However, AT&T’s wireless descendants have shown an interest in resurrecting, one way or another, the pre-Carterfone rule.

The Carterfone principle has had enormous consequences not only in telecommunications policy, but for the economic prosperity of the United States. The ability to build a device to a standardized network interface (the phone plug, known as an RJ-11) gave birth to a new market in home and business telecommunications equipment. That led, predictably, to competition in the phone market. But it also led, unpredictably, to other innovations.

Those have included mass consumer versions of the fax machine, the answering machine, and, perhaps most importantly, the modem. Arguably, the FCC’s rules on network attachments—now known as the Part 68 rules—have been the most successful in its history.

The freedom to buy and attach a modem became the anchor of the mass popularization of the Internet in the 1990s. As one observer put it, without Carterfone, “the development and broad popularization of the Internet also would not have occurred as it did. The key point of Carterfone is that it eliminated an innovation bottleneck in the form of the phone company.”

Professor Wu recommends that the industry or the FCC should define a cellular Carterfone principle: “a basic interface to which any equipment manufacturer could build a mobile device and sell to consumers.” This is an ambitious goal, but not impossible. The wireless world already has experience in standardized interfaces, such as the GSM system with the SIM card, although, ironically, this functionality is defeated by the US carriers by the process of “locking” phones to particular carrier.

As the saying goes, read the whole thing. Then you will never again wonder why the US lags behind in mobile wireless, whereas “in almost all other fields of communication the US is heavily dominant….the one different variable is policy.”