The Future of Openness: Verizon 4G

On November 15th, Verizon Wireless will launch the United States’ first nationwide 4G network. Not only is this new network faster than anything else out there, it’ll be much more robust than ever before! Without going into a ton of boring details (of which there are plenty), the network benefits largely from two things: 1) much newer and more advanced wireless technology on each cell tower, and 2) a range of spectrum in the 700mhz band that Verizon bought several years ago. There are several benefits from moving into the 700mhz space, but essentially lower band radio waves cover longer distances, consume less power, propagate in more directions, and provide better penetration of solid objects like buildings and people. That’s right–more bang for your buck!

But what does that have to do with “openness”?

When the federal government placed the 700mhz band on the auction block, they were approached by Google, who proposed that one very specific stipulation be attached to the spectrum, no matter who won the final bid. In a nutshell, this requirement stated that anyone who purchased a part of the 700mhz band would allow any device, for any purpose, from any manufacturer to connect to and utilize the network. In return, Google vowed that they would guarantee something like $4 billion in payment to the FCC if no other entity offered at least that much cash for the spectrum.

Initially, telcos didn’t like this idea at all, since (as we all know so very well) they prefer to maintain strict control over their networks. In fact, it’s my understanding that even Verizon was very much against all of this at the beginning; however, much has changed since then.

Fast forward to today and recognize that Verizon has both won the bid for the spectrum and also created the Verizon Wireless Open Development Initiative. This program is basically a set of guidelines that manufacturers and hardware designers must follow when creating devices targeted to Verizon’s 4G network. As long as those guidelines are followed, a device certification will be awarded and the device will operate on the Verizon network when paired with an active SIM card. All-in-all, it’s pretty cool stuff!

So what does that mean for end users?

Well, it’s definitely a great thing! It means that any company can create a Verizon-compatible device and offer it on the Verizon 4G network without actually partnering with Verizon. For example, Google could offer a new phone (say, the Nexus Two?) on LTE without a Verizon partnership. All they need is approval via the Open Development Initiative! In fact, with the proper infrastructure in place, a company could offer a full VoIP service over the Verizon 4G network and the only thing the consumer would have to pay to Verizon would be the data access charge. (Google Voice anyone?)

Whether or not all of this pans out from the economics side of things still remains to be seen. Generally, mobile devices are successful only when subsidized through a mobile carrier, but with the right following and business model, we could see smartphones and other mobile devices offered for a low price with no device-bound contract! Obviously any plan data or otherwise would still go through Verizon and you’d have to pay them their due, but I see a lot of creative possibilities beyond that.

In the end, I believe we’ll see an eventual explosion of smart devices both mobile and otherwise that are compatible with the Verizon 4G network (and any compatible LTE network in general). In fact, November 15th could be the beginning of the end of “mobile” as we know it! Think about the traditional wired broadband model applied to wireless. The main problem may lie in how Verizon prices and packages its data plans. If AT&T’s recent change is any indication, we’re all in trouble. Fingers crossed everyone!

As for the rest of it, color me excited!

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