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Verizon Wireless marches into the open

The company that protested FCC open-access rules only a couple months ago continues to take strides in the other direction.

Verizon Wireless announced plans Tuesday to let any cell phone compatible with its technology run on its network, and to let owners of those devices run any application they desire, by the end of next year.

That would mean that any U.S. customer of Sprint's, which also uses the CDMA (code division multiple access) cellular networking technology, could use his or her phone on Verizon's data network. But the decision to open up the network to outside applications is a clear nod to the growing interest in mobile phones as an application development platform by companies like Google, and a dramatic departure from Verizon's usual practice of locking down its phones.

Even though it hasn't quite satisfied all of its critics on the subject, Verizon in the past few weeks has taken significant steps--including Tuesday's announcement--toward opening its network to devices and software not offered by the company.

As ZDNet's Larry Dignan points out, Verizon is responding to competitive forces such as the iPhone and Google's Open Handset Alliance. And, in fact, the company more than hinted it would be moving in this direction in October, when it filed to dismiss its appeals court petition arguing against Federal Communications Commission open-access rules for the upcoming auction of 700MHz wireless spectrum.

Consumer groups on Tuesday praised Verizon Wireless for the initiative, which will include technical testing and a full rollout in 2008, but noted that it is not fully fleshed out. ""This is surely a step in the right direction, but its shortcomings underscore the need for regulations to guarantee Americans the same rights on wireless networks that they have on landlines. Verizon's plan still doesn't guarantee access for all devices, and it is uncertain how much Verizon may charge customers for the right to use their own equipment," Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, said in a statement.

And Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of consumer group Public Knowledge, said in statement that while Verizon's announcement is cause for "cautious optimism," it also is "very limited. If other carriers don't follow the same model, then consumers will still find their phones tied to a specific technology or wireless company. Until they do, an iPhone will still be useless on any network but AT&T's. In order for an open network to become a reality, all carriers will have to participate."

Verizon has 63.8 million users on its network. That makes it the second-largest carrier in the U.S., behind AT&T and ahead of Sprint and T-Mobile.

CNET's Richard Defendorf contributed to this report.