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Mobile subscribers really do want more choice

An IBM survey shows that an overwhelming majority of cell phone users want more choice in the applications and services they can get on their phones.

Consumers want more choice when it comes to mobile phone service.

At least that's the big conclusion from a consumer survey published Wednesday by IBM's Institute for Business Value. According to the report, 80 percent of consumers said they'd prefer a service provider that gave them more choice in the applications and services available on their mobile device.

This is welcome news for advocates of open networks, such as Google. The Internet giant has effectively lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to include a provision in the recent 700Mhz spectrum auction to force the winner of some licenses to agree to open access.

Verizon Wireless, the winner of those licenses, is also experimenting with its own flavor of open access. In November, the company announced it would create a program that stream lines the certification process for new devices to allow different handsets on its network. While the phone company isn't opening up its network to the extent that Google would like, it is creating a path for handset makers and software developers to get new devices and applications on its network much more quickly.

As the Internet goes mobile, companies such as Google and Verizon Wireless see a huge opportunity. The market for mobile Internet services is estimated to reach $80 billion by 2011, according to IBM. At the same time, the number of mobile Internet users worldwide is expected to reach nearly 1 billion by 2011.

It's this huge opportunity that is driving Google, which makes money by selling Internet advertising, to develop an open operating system platform for mobile phones called Android. The goal of the new OS is to make it easier for developers to create new applications for handsets.

The results of this survey shouldn't come as a shock to anyone in the industry. As more people use the mobile Internet, they expect to have the same freedom to access applications that they can get on their PCs at home. Imagine the outrage if Internet service providers like AT&T or Comcast told a broadband customer that they couldn't access Facebook or download a Skype client? They'd be outraged.

Service providers like Verizon Wireless are at the very least paying the idea of open access lip service, which is good. But whether open access can survive as a business model depends on how affordable this access will be. If mobile operators charge a premium for choice and freedom, a truly open network business model may take longer to develop.