WASHINGTON-Less than a week after the Federal Communications Commission launched an inquiry into the state of competition and innovation in the wireless carrier industry, CTIA-the wireless industry’s chief voice-is cranking up a publicity campaign to tell “our story.” Steve Largent, CTIA’s president and CEO, has even gone so far as to say he welcomes the inquiry, which consumer and advocacy groups consider long overdue.
The inquiry reflects a likely change in direction for the FCC, which has spent the last eight years promoting a hands-off, no-regulation agenda for the wireless industry. New Chairman Julius Genachowski, though, has pledged to pursue a “pro-consumer” agenda with open networks and network neutrality principles guiding the agency.
For some, the FCC inquiry foreshadows more regulation for wireless carriers. In addition to the wireless inquiry now under way, the FCC under Genachowski has already plowed into the Google Voice controversy involving Google, Apple and AT&T, asking all sides to explain their positions. The agency is also exploring exclusive handset deals and is working on a national broadband plan that could lead to new regulations, including additional network neutrality rules.
“My job is to always be concerned about additional regulation regardless of who’s in office,” Largent told reporters here Sept. 1 at the trade association’s Dupont Circle headquarters. “Regardless of who the president is, regardless of who’s in Congress, regardless of who’s at the FCC, my job is to keep an eye out for harmful regulation of the wireless industry.”
Largent said the election of Barack Obama and his subsequent appointment of Genachowski didn’t set off any particular alarms for his members. “We knew they’d be looking into everybody’s business.”
Complaints Are Really Between Carriers
In other words, CTIA was fully prepared for what seems like an inevitable FCC inquiry into the practices of wireless carriers. Moments after the FCC commissioners approved the inquiry, CTIA issued this statement: “The wireless ecosystem-from carriers, to handset manufacturers, to network providers, to operating system providers, to application developers-is evolving before our eyes and this is not the same market that it was even three years ago. In this industry, innovation is everywhere.”
Largent on Sept. 1 again stressed, “We have a great story to tell. We relish the opportunity. This is our sweet spot. We have changed completely over the last six years. We are looking forward to telling our story.” Largent did admit that the wireless industry probably had a hand in bringing on the FCC inquiry after years of consumer complaints about the industry’s business practices. “The industry was growing so fast, it couldn’t keep up with demand. It took time to catch up with the consumer end.”
Largent said the current furor over exclusive handset deals like Apple’s iPhone arrangement with AT&T, roaming disputes and other complaints about the industry are best solved between the carriers.
Referring to Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application, Largent said, “It’s a good thing the FCC asked questions about it, but most of these disputes are solved on a case-by-case basis. The complaints are actually between our carriers. We’re a little bit torn on this particular issue because we have small carriers, we have large carriers, and all the carriers have said to us, ‘CTIA, you guys just stay out of this fight. This is something that we’re going to work out among ourselves.’ And they actually have begun to work that out.”
Well, sort of. In July Verizon announced that it would limit exclusive handset deals to six months and make the devices available to the nation’s smallest carriers, a decision widely derided by consumer and advocacy groups as a hollow gesture with little impact.
As for network neutrality, the wireless carriers remain squarely against the expansion of the FCC’s four network neutrality principles to the wireless carriers. Currently, the principles only apply to wire-line carriers.
“Wireless networks are different from the other networks,” Largent said. “We have to manage our networks because we’re not just sending Internet over our devices and through our networks, we’re sending voice calls as well. Network neutrality would threaten our devices.”