Open Access Proponents Unite in Face of Google-Verizon Hook-Up - InformationWeek

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10/31/2007
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Open Access Proponents Unite in Face of Google-Verizon Hook-Up

A group of startups, including Txtbl, Buglabs, and ZVUE, are announcing a new coalition to promote open wireless networks and devices.

As rumors swirl about a potential partnership between Google and Verizon Wireless for mobile phones running applications and a new operating system from the search giant, a group of startups will announce a new coalition to promote open wireless networks and devices on Wednesday.

Amol Sarva, CEO of mobile e-mail startup Txtbl, will announce the Open Access Developers Group as part of his keynote address this afternoon at the VON conference in Boston. Comprising initially a handful of mobile Internet startups, including Txtbl, Buglabs, and ZVUE, the new group will be open to any device makers and application developers that want to "be part of designing a fully ubiquitous, open, 4G network that can change the way the industry works," Sarva said in an e-mail.

Google has ambitions to offer its services and applications (and advertising) on a broad range of mobile devices, and is reportedly working on an operating system for mobile phones that could run on devices from any handset maker or carrier. If Google signs a series of "sweetheart deals" with the Big 4 U.S. wireless carriers, Sarva said, "It's easy to see a future where the Apples and Googles of the world have special distribution deals with carriers, and where innovative new players are locked out."

Both Reuters and The Wall Street Journal have reported this week that Google is in talks with Verizon about mobile phones running Google applications and, potentially, its forthcoming operating system. Such a deal between the Web search leader and the No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier could involve technology and potential business models such as ad-sponsored services.

A hook-up with Verizon would be an about-face for Google, which has been among the strongest supporters of fully open wireless networks. Google has said it will spend as much as $4.6 billion in the upcoming FCC auction of valuable spectrum in the 700-MHz band, if the auction were based on open-access requirements. The FCC has issued regulations for the auction, scheduled for January, that require any networks built to operate on some of the spectrum to be open to any device and any application.

Verizon, meanwhile, has been a vociferous opponent to open-access requirements, saying such regulations will undercut the value of the spectrum and doom any business built on it. Last week, however, Verizon dropped its legal challenge to the open-access rules. It's unclear whether that move is related to talks with Google.

Also unclear is whether Google, which has built its business on open and free networks and applications, would enter into a deal with a carrier providing only locked devices running on proprietary networks. Google has already worked with Research in Motion to integrate applications such as search and maps into the closed BlackBerry platform.

Google executives have so far declined to comment on specific plans. In September, Dilip Venkatachari, a director of product management for Google's mobile team, told InformationWeek, "we are working with a wide range of partners, including some of the U.S. carriers like Sprint, to develop a set of customer experiences that provide users with better access to search and more improved applications."

Sarva, who will announce the creation of the Open Access Developers Group today, is a member of an advisory council to Frontline Wireless, a startup co-founded by former FCC chairman Reed Hundt that plans to bid in the 700MHz auction. Frontline has challenged the commission to ensure that the newly available spectrum doesn't fall into the hands of incumbents like Verizon.

"The rumors that Google is considering a special deal with Verizon, a sworn enemy of open access, mean that the transformative potential of the 700 MHz auction depends on Frontline," Sarva said.

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