Via David Isenberg, I came across this wonderful Walt Mossberg column on the cellular gatekeepers in the US:
In the U.S., the wireless phone carriers have used their ownership of networks to sharply restrict what technologies can actually reach users.
I call these cellphone companies the new Soviet ministries, because they are reminiscent of the Communist bureaucracies in Russia that stood athwart the free market for decades. Like the real Soviet ministries, these technology middlemen too often believe they can decide better than the market what goods consumers need.
Of course, the cellphone carriers aren’t Communists, and they aren’t evil. They spent billions of dollars to acquire and build their networks. They have every right to want to manage these networks carefully and to earn a fair return on their investments on behalf of their shareholders.
Also, these companies often subsidize the cost of the phones consumers buy, so they feel they have a right to decide what products reach consumers.
However, I believe that, in the name of valid business goals, the U.S. carriers are exercising far too much control over the flow of new technologies into users’ hands. In an ideal world, any tech company with a new cellphone, or with software to run on cellphones, should be able to sell it directly to users. These customers would then separately buy plans from the cellphone companies allowing those devices to work on the networks.
But that isn’t how it works. In most cases, manufacturers must get the network operators’ approval to sell hardware that runs on their networks, and carriers don’t allow downloading of software onto phones unless they supply it themselves. I once saw a sign at the offices of a big cellphone carrier that said, “It isn’t a phone until ‘Harry’ says it’s a phone.” But why should it be up to Harry (a real carrier employee whose name I have changed)? Why shouldn’t the market decide whether a device is a good phone?
I’m in the midst of exactly this experience. As part of our move to California, I’ve been looking at cellular phones and the packages that surround them. In the UK, it’s pretty easy. Any phone will work on any network providing you have a SIM card. Of course the network operators try to entice you by offering special deals on phones, but that’s the market in action. It’s not a restriction of my freedom.
What I can’t seem to do here is use my UK-bought Nokia phone with the US-acquired T-Mobile SIM card I now have. That’s not a problem for me, since my business has us all on BlackBerrys, which works pretty well. But I thought I could just get a SIM card for my wife’s phone. No such luck.
In so many ways, American life is very easy (for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs and money). Things work smoothly and technology is generally advanced. That’s to be expected in the richest nation on earth. What’s not expected is the number of areas where US technology compares woefully to poor, benighted Britain: the structure of mobile telephony, the comparative underdevelopment of digital television, the absence of digital radio and congestion charging are the four things that spring immediately to mind.