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3/12/2008
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Open Networks, Open Platforms Seen As Mobile Industry's Future

Google's Android operating system and VoIP applications like Skype will be major contributors, a panel of communications experts predicts.

As the FCC's auction of valuable spectrum in the 700 MHz range winds down, the mobile and wireless industry is entering a new era of open networks and open software platforms -- regardless of the outcome of the bidding in the auction.

That was the conclusion of speakers in the opening session of the Emerging Communications Conference at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley on Wednesday.

"Finally, the Internet is going mobile," said Jonathan Christensen, general manager for audio and video at Skype. With the open-access provisions attached to the 700 MHz auction, the advent of open platforms such as the Android operating system from Google, and the success of VoIP applications like Skype (which now has 276 million registered users), "a new game begins," added Christensen.

This new game is marked not only by efforts by large established players like Google and Verizon Wireless, which is now offering a $100-a-month plan for unlimited calling and is opening up its data network to outside devices and applications, but startups like OpenMoko, which is backed by First International Computer and has developed a fully open-source, Linux-based software platform for mobile computing devices.

Creating applications for OpenMoko "requires no NDA," said Michael Shiloh of OpenMoko, speaking at the conference. "We offer unrestricted access to the source code and the development environment; and there are no qualifications or purchase required."

The concept behind OpenMoko and the associated line of devices, branded Neo, is that "all barriers to entry are removed."

The advent of open platforms like Android, and the opening up of previously closed devices like the iPhone from Apple, which last week released the software development kit for the popular consumer device, has convinced the Big Four wireless carriers to begin taking steps toward offering more accessible versions of their own products. Verizon plans next week to release Version 1.0 of the specifications for new wireless devices running on its "Any Device, Any App" plan, which is a data-only service.

Underway since Jan. 24, the 700 MHz auction has attracted $19.5 billion in bids through 209 rounds and is expected to wind up in the next week or so. Many observers have criticized the FCC for not ensuring that independent bidders, beyond the major wireless carriers, would compete for the most highly valued slice of airwaves, the so-called "C block." But any winning bidder will be at least nominally required to open its resulting network to devices and applications from any provider.

The result of the auction will help determine how far and how pervasive the new openness in the mobile industry will go, said eComm speakers.

"This is definitely one of most exciting times in communications," said Christensen, "but there are still lots of hurdles. We have to make sure [the network operators] don't discriminate against certain applications on the network."

The issue of "network neutrality" that Christensen referred to was the subject of an outraged diatribe from David Isenberg, former research scientist at AT&T Laboratories and the author of an influential 1997 paper called "The Rise of the Stupid Network." Isenberg pointed out that political developments quashed the "Competitive Local Exchange Carriers in the early 2000s and that the national Internet service business is in many ways an oligopoly, with the network providers now "trying to move up the stack" to control the applications that run over their networks.

"We need to have a neutral network," said Isenberg to applause from the audience, "where the owners of the physical infrastructure can't exercise discriminatory practices against applications they don't participate in and shut out the competition.

Remarking that the eComm audience represents "several hundred apps," Isenberg concluded, "If you guys care about your jobs you should care about the politics in Washington D.C., because the phone companies will shut you down or buy you out and you won't exist."

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