What does Verizon’s open-access network option mean for you?

Verizon’s decision to give customers the option of connecting to its network through outside devices is, to say the least, a departure from its past views on open-access rules. In this FAQ, we discuss the possible reasons for Verizon’s change of heart, as well as what this decision means for the future of open-access networks.

What does Verizon’s new option mean for the typical consumer or business?

It means you can connect to Verizon’s network without using only a Verizon phone. In theory, open-access networks will allow consumers and businesses to switch carriers without having to purchase a whole new set of devices. Verizon’s decision to open its network is another step toward separating carriers’ services from the devices they offer.

So Verizon Wireless now says that it’s opening its network to any device. Weren’t they opposed to this sort of thing in the past?

You bet they were. Verizon actually sued the FCC earlier this year because it was displeased with the commission’s open-access requirements for about a third of the 62MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band scheduled to be auctioned in January. Though they eventually dropped their suit against the FCC, Verizon has been a consistent opponent of open-access rules for carriers.

So why the change in heart?

Verizon spokeswoman Nancy Stark says Verizon has actually been thinking about opening its network for quite some time. According to Stark, the company sees that a “small but growing” number of customers want to connect to Verizon’s network without having to use a Verizon device. She insists that the company’s decision was not a reaction to rival carriers Sprint and T-Mobile joining the Open Handset Alliance, a multinational group dedicated to promoting Google’s Android platform and open access to networks. Verizon’s new open-access option, she says, is simply “an opportunity for growth and for meeting customer needs.”

Others, however, are more skeptical. Mike Jude, a senior analyst at Nemertes Research, thinks Verizon is smart enough to see which way the winds are blowing and is changing accordingly. In particular, he thinks the FCC’s decision to promote open access in a portion of the 700-MHz auction and Google’s open Android platform were key factors in Verizon’s decision.

“By doing this, Verizon basically sticks a thumb in the eye of carriers like Sprint that have announced they will support the Android platform,” he says. “It’s a good response to what Google, Sprint and others have gotten together to do.”

Jude also says that Verizon’s decision to open its network to more devices is a smart way of preempting any future FCC decisions on open access by providing the commission with its own model of an open access network that it thinks is more favorable to their interests.

Does this mean Verizon is planning to join the Open Handset Alliance?

Not at the moment, although the company says it still hasn’t ruled out joining at some point.

Verizon says it will let any device connect to its network as long as it meets certain technical standards. What are those standards?

We don’t know yet. The company says it will test devices for connectivity in its lab, and it will release its minimum technical requirements early next year. Stark says the company will only test devices for connectivity and it will allow any applications to run on their networks.

How will the pricing for Verizon’s open-access option differ from the pricing for its “full service” package that requires users to use a Verizon device?

The company says it hasn’t fully worked out pricing yet, but will likely be determined on a per-usage basis, rather than on a flat rate.

Does this mean that U.S. carriers are loosening the grip they’ve traditionally kept on wireless devices?

It would seem that way. Dan Kohn, the COO of the pro-open access Linux Foundation, says Verizon’s decision could be a watershed moment in opening access to carrier networks and “if Verizon's implementation follows the direction of their announcement, then we believe that Verizon will be a leader in bringing Linux-style choice to the mobile world.”

Hart, meanwhile, predicts AT&T will likely follow suit and open its network

“It’s a herd mentality,” he says. “And the bottom line is, consumers want choice.”

Dylan Schiemann, CEO of Web applications developer SitePen, isn’t sure that Verizon’s network will be as open as many people are hoping, but he still thinks it’s a step in the right direction and that having open-access options for customers will become a standard industry practice.

“The carriers are at least giving the impression that they are starting to wake up and realize that a growing percentage of users want the best network and the best device,” he says. “At a minimum, the carriers are going to have to stay competitive with Google and Apple, and that's a great thing for the end user, and for innovation in the market.”

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