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Wireless Carriers Address An Open Future

Opening up the wireless carriers' networks to devices will be beneficial to consumers, executives said, but optimization and security remain issues.

As mobile data services get faster and offer a strong mobile Internet experience, wireless operators are increasingly eying an open strategy for their networks.

At a CTIA keynote session Wednesday, leaders from three of the big four carriers in the United States discussed how open their networks would be in the near future. The executives agreed that openness would be beneficial for consumers and operators, but it will also lead to some issues regarding security, optimization, and price.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said the company is incrementally moving toward openness, and pointed to devices like the Amazon Kindle, which uses Sprint's EV-DO service. But Hesse expects true device openness to occur with the company's next-generation 4G network.

"The embedded chip model for WiMax will allow people to bring whatever device, a laptop, camera, or whatever to the network," Hesse said.

Verizon Wireless announced last November that it would open up its network to third-party software, developers, and mobile handsets. The company's president and CEO, Lowell McAdam, said the potential of near-broadband mobile speeds made opening up the network almost a logistical necessity.

"We couldn't handle all that innovation, and make all those bets, and train all those people, and take all that overhead into the business," McAdam said. "Now, the developers will place those bets, and consumers will decide.

Being a GSM provider, T-Mobile is already fairly open as users can pop in a SIM card into nearly any handset and use the company's network. The company's president and CEO, Robert Dotson, estimated about 30% of the devices in New York weren't T-Mobile-specific handsets.

T-Mobile also has strong ties with the Android platform and is a member of the Open Handset Alliance, a Google-led initiative that aims to bring the openness of the Web to mobile devices.

But the executives agreed that truly opening up the networks to all comers -- or a "wild west" scenario -- has its own pitfalls, and carriers must exert a certain level of control.

"If you look at unfettered access on the network, all of us would agree that it's a pretty poor experience for users," Dotson said. "There needs to be some stewardship or control."

Additionally, McAdam said more device openness will lead to higher costs for handsets because of the lack of carrier subsidy. Because of this, he only expects about 20% of customers to adopt the open model, but that could change depending on the quality of the experience.

Dotson agreed with McAdam's sentiments, and pointed to the success of Research In Motion's tightly integrated handsets and platform.

"The BlackBerry is not an open platform, but it has a phenomenal e-mail experience," Dotson said. "And there will be a role for that seamless hardware integration that provides a great experience and richness."

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