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Timothy Karr

Timothy Karr

Posted: June 19, 2009 11:43 AM

If You Love the iPhone, Set It Free


Do you want to get the new iPhone?

If so, you're in for a disappointment. If not, you should be worried anyway.

Apple just released the new iPhone in a hail of hype, promising that it would be "the Internet in your pocket." If only. The smart phone's groundbreaking technology has been hijacked by AT&T. In a move reminiscent of old Ma Bell, the telephone giant has struck an exclusive agreement with Apple that ties the hands of all iPhone users, restricts their Internet use and prohibits access to any other network.

And the iPhone is not alone. Nine of the 10 most popular phones are locked into exclusive deals with the few wireless carriers that dominate the market. That means that as long as carriers reserve the right to cripple the phone's best features, block full access to the Internet and stick customers with astronomical bills, you're not getting the real Internet from your shiny new handheld.

Congress Examines Handset Shackling

Exclusivity Sucks

These carrier restrictions are also why there's a growing consumer revolt to free the iPhone and other "smart" phones like it from the control of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.

The controversy revolves around this simple question:

If we can access the free-flowing Internet via a wireless laptop or desktop computer, why can't we do the same with our new handheld computers?


These "exclusive deals" recall the days when AT&T held a monopoly over all phone communications. For decades, Ma Bell controlled every phone on its grid and banned other companies from connecting new devices or services.

A groundbreaking 1968 policy change, known among tech wonks as the "Carterfone decision," pried open the device marketplace so that numerous new phone products could be introduced -- including answering machines, fax machines, cordless phones and early computer modems. This in turn spawned a flood of innovation in services that greatly benefited consumers.

In 2009, we need to take a serious look at the ways Carterfone rules would open the wireless marketplace to the next wave of innovation. Free Press on Wednesday launched FreeMyPhone, a campaign designed to give new "smart" phone users more control over their handheld Internet experience.

The Mobile Internet

This work is vital because wireless devices are now in the hands of more than 270 million Americans -- that's 87 percent of the population. But as more phones become "Web-enabled," more users are tied to carriers that promise the Internet but don't actually deliver the openness that's its founding principle.

AT&T is a case in point. The carrier just decided to allow Major League Baseball to stream video live to the new iPhone 3Gnetwork, but is blocking consumers from accessing other video services. Had AT&T done the same via it's wired-line services, it would be a stark violation of Net Neutrality, the principle that guarantees users can access any legal application, Web site or service they choose.

Late last year, AT&T's top lobbyist told the Washington Post that open Internet principles should govern wireless communications and that consumers expect unfettered mobile access.

"The same principals [sic] should apply across the board," Jim Cicconi said. "As people migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they... certainly expect that we treat these services the same way."

Why then is AT&T now deciding what online video its iPhone customers can and can't watch?

So here we are -- at the dawn of the era of a true mobile Internet with AT&T and the other carriers still playing gatekeepers to the next generation of innovation.

Imagine what the new iPhone would really be if we only set it free.

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