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FCC official: No need to mandate 'open' mobile networks...yet

Democrat says he'll take wait-and-see approach to pursuing new rules requiring wireless carriers to let consumers use whatever applications and devices they desire.

Update at 10:05 a.m. PST Wednesday: A Copps aide called us on Wednesday to say that his boss didn't intend to give the impression that he opposes new regulations on the wireless industry. He pointed us to a sentence in Copps' speech (PDF) in which the Democratic commissioner said he would "enthusiastically support" the FCC's declaration of "general principles for open wireless platforms" at any time. Copps did then go on to say, as we reported Tuesday, that he would not "strongly object" to industry-led initiatives, "at least for now."

WASHINGTON--A key federal regulator on Tuesday said he's not ready--yet, at least--to pursue new rules requiring wireless carriers to open their networks to whatever devices or programs their customers desire.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps Federal Communications Commission

Federal Communications Commission Democrat Michael Copps said he would not "strongly object" to sitting back, for now, and watching how recent "voluntary" promises by wireless carriers pan out. For instance, ostensibly because of the threat of regulation, Verizon Wireless recently said it would generally start allowing any phone to run on its network, and allow any application to run on those devices, by the end of this year. Other carriers, such as AT&T Wireless have also been playing up their perceived openness as a marketing tactic.

"I hope it is as good as it sounds," Copps told attendees at an event here organized by the New America Foundation. "But we have to ask: has the reality shifted quite as much as the rhetoric has shifted?"

Hesitance to new regulations would hardly be noteworthy coming from some of the more free-market members of the commission, such as Chairman Kevin Martin or Commissioner Robert McDowell. But from Copps, it seems at least a bit unusual. After all, he has said he would like to see the FCC pass more stringent rules with regard to Net neutrality, or the issue of prioritizing Internet content.

Copps nevertheless tempered his less-regulatory intentions on Tuesday with a warning of sorts for wireless carriers: we'll be watching you.

He ticked off a number of areas that could prompt concerns down the road. Atop his list were worries about tricks wireless carriers might play with their pricing: for example, charging their customers extra fees to bring their own handsets to their plans, or requiring consumers to buy voice plans in addition to data plans when they only want to make VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls on their wireless phones.

And if carriers generally price their rate plans and initiate contracts based on the idea that they're subsidizing the cost of a phone, "then shouldn't I get a better rate if I bring my own phone?" Copps asked. "And I shouldn't have to accept an early termination fee either."

Copps said he'll also be looking at whether consumers are stymied in moving their phones from one carrier to another, and whether entrepreneurs designing new mobile devices or applications are being hampered by seeking permission from wireless carriers before offering their products.

The FCC has already taken a small step toward requiring wireless carriers to open up their networks. As part of its rules for an upcoming auction of vacated broadcast TV spectrum, the agency is obligating winning bidders on a small slice of that 700 MHz spectrum to abide by "open access" principles.

But the practical impact of those requirements more globally remains less clear, which has prompted some public interest groups and VoIP company Skype to agitate for broader rules.

T-Mobile technology policy director Bob Calaff, who spoke on a panel after Copps, said the government needs to be careful about imposing new obligations on wireless firms.

"We're not talking about a toaster or a refrigerator or even a landline phone or a PC," he said. "We're talking about devices that are integrally connected to the network. When we head into these policy debates, we have to be mindful that these are integral components of the network and that one size does not fit all."