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Your iPhone Is Political

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There's simply no way to improve upon the headline for Ryan Singel's post in Wired this week: "Wireless Oligopoly Is Smother of Invention."

So instead, I'll amplify it. In his piece, Singel compares the wireless industry — unfavorably — to television and wireline Internet service providers. His basic point is this: Neither of those industries could get away with the consumer abuses perpetrated by mobile carriers (though they certainly have their fair share of other abuses). So why do we allow the wireless industry to kill innovation and hurt consumers? He writes:

Imagine if the wireless carriers controlled your wired broadband connection or your television set. You'd have to buy your television from your cable company, with a two-year contract, and when that ended, you'd have to ask them to unlock it so you could take it to another provider.

If the wireless company ran your ISP, you'd have to use a computer they approved, and if you wanted to use a different one, you'd pay more. Want Wi-Fi in your house? That'll be an extra $30 a month and $150 to buy an approved but functionally limited Wi-Fi device.

The truth is, until more people — and lawmakers — understand control over mobile devices and the platforms on which they run as a political issue, the wireless industry is not going to change its ways.

Here's what I mean by "political." Mobile networks and devices are becoming central components of the new media infrastructure. Our consumption and production of information, political engagement and participation in culture depend on access to affordable broadband data connections — including mobile data accessed via smartphones and tablets. But carriers want to constrain the future of democratic media in the name of profit maximization by monopolizing the distribution of phones, restricting data use, and turning us into passive consumers instead of engaged citizens.

Just look at AT&T's new tiered price gouge pricing model for data plans. In the short term, these plans — which cap data usage at 200 MB or 2 GB per month, depending on the price you choose — seem reasonable. But they're not constructed for the long haul. As we stream and download more and more video on our phones (as the more than 600,000 people who pre-ordered iPhones this week surely will), these data caps will seem puny, and punitive. Rather than build out its network, AT&T prefers to follow the tried-and-true method of restricting its customers' behavior and stifling innovation.

These companies act as if they own the wireless spectrum their data runs on. But they don't; it's ours. The spectrum is public property that carriers (and radio operators) lease from the government. As Singel suggests, it's time that we stood up to the carriers and demand they open up their networks (and their phones).

We can't unlock the true potential of mobile media until the carriers get out of the way. And they won't get out of the way without a fight. Free your phone.

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