|All that stuff that the wireless industry says about being competitive is baloney! Cell phones in the US are big and stupid, and deliberately crippled to get you to pay extra for things that are natively supported in devices, like custom ringtones. And most Americans don’t know any better because they’ve never used the higher quality phones and networks available in other countries! For a deeper dive on this, see Tim Wu’s Wireless Carterphone, but for an overview of the problems, Walt Mossberg’s column in today’s Journal explains how the industry stifles innovation. This is an area where the deck of cards could be used to protect consumers, because clearly, competition and openness would benefit the landscape:
A shortsighted and often just plain stupid federal government has allowed itself to be bullied and fooled by a handful of big wireless phone operators for decades now. And the result has been a mobile phone system that is the direct opposite of the PC model. It severely limits consumer choice, stifles innovation, crushes entrepreneurship, and has made the U.S. the laughingstock of the mobile-technology world, just as the cellphone is morphing into a powerful hand-held computer.
Whether you are a consumer, a hardware maker, a software developer or a provider of cool new services, it’s hard to make a move in the American cellphone world without the permission of the companies that own the pipes. While power in other technology sectors flows to consumers and nimble entrepreneurs, in the cellphone arena it remains squarely in the hands of the giant carriers.
We also need much greater portability of phone hardware. Because the federal government failed to set a standard for wireless phone technology years ago, we have two major, incompatible cellphone technologies in the U.S. Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. use something called CDMA. AT&T and Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile use something called GSM. Except for a couple of oddball models, phones built for one of these technologies can’t work on the other. So that limits consumer choice and consumer power. If you want to switch from AT&T to Verizon, you have to swallow the cost of a new phone.
But the problem is even worse. The government didn’t require the CDMA companies to include a removable account-information chip, called a SIM card, in their phones. So, unlike people with GSM phones, Sprint and Verizon customers can’t keep their phones if they switch between the two carriers, even though they use the same basic technology. And, the government allows the GSM carriers to “lock” their phones, so a SIM card from a rival carrier won’t work in them, at least for a period of time. Techies can sometimes figure out how to get around this, but average folks can’t.
The carriers defend these restrictions partly by pointing out that they subsidize the cost of the phones in order to get you to use their networks. That’s also, they say, why they require contracts and charge early-termination fees. Without the subsidies, they say, that $99 phone might be $299, so it’s only fair to keep you from fleeing their networks, at least too quickly.
But this whole cellphone subsidy game is an archaic remnant of the days when mobile phones were costly novelties. Today, subsidies are a trap for consumers. If subsidies were removed, along with the restrictions that flow from them, the market would quickly produce cheap phones, just as it has produced cheap, unsubsidized versions of every other digital product, from $399 computers to $79 iPods.
The Federal Communications Commission is selling some new wireless spectrum that will supposedly lead to fewer restrictions for technology companies and consumers, but it’s far from certain that the carriers, with their legions of lobbyists and lawyers, will allow such a new day to dawn. Google Inc. is making noises about trying to bust open the cellphone prison, with new software and services, but that’s no sure bet either.