08/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Ma Bell Is Really Afraid Of

When consumers purchase an Apple iPhone, a BlackBerry Storm, or other "smart" phone, why are they forced to sign up with a particular wireless carrier?

USA Today wants an answer. In a pointed op-ed on Thursday, the paper's editors wrote that carriers "squelch innovation" through such handset exclusivity deals. These deals "make about as much sense as it would have to force the architects of the computer and Internet revolutions to conform to Ma Bell."

We at the FreeMyPhone campaign couldn't agree more, which is why more than 16,000 people have called upon Congress and the FCC to free us "to use our phones as we choose -- on wireless networks that offer true high-speed Internet and real consumer choice."

America's mobile phone problem began in the mid-1990s, when Congress and the FCC sided with telecom companies that "wanted to build proprietary networks, unlike much of the rest of the world, which opted for open platforms," according to USA Today.

This corporate giveaway has proven to be a massive mistake. Wireless service and wired broadband in America lag behind those in much of Europe and Asia, while prices continue to spiral upward.

Travel overseas and you'll find that most new smart phones can be used with any service. Their handsets are not only wireless, they come with no strings attached.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to CNET, unlocked phones make up about 80 percent of handheld devices available in Asian markets; in Europe, they account for 70 percent of the mobile phones sold.

Here in the United States, however, fewer than 5 percent of mobile phones aren't shackled to particular carriers. Worse, nine of the 10 most popular phones are locked into exclusive deals with the few industry giants that dominate the wireless market.

New smart phones allow us to download applications, watch videos and use new services in the same way we access them using connected laptops and desktop computers. So why should consumers be hobbled by deals that allow carriers to tie down the hottest new devices and block our ability to use them as they're intended?

USA Today writes that providers have repeatedly slowed applications, such as cellphone GPS systems, VOIP services and wireless video players, until they could figure out better ways to thwart competitors and get the lion's share of revenues from those services.

At a time when the IT and high-tech sector is one of our best hopes to pull the U.S. economy out of its tailspin, it makes no sense to allow carriers to stifle a part of that marketplace that shows so much potential for growth and innovation.