Reserving Judgment on Sprint/Clearwire/Google/Intel/ForcesofDarkness Deal

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Obligatory Cliche Neitsche Quote

When last we left Sprint, the wily temptress of the airwaves, she was languorously sighing while apparently choosing between her old suitors (refugees from Spectrum Co. Comcast, Time Warner, and Brighthouse) and her new suitors (Google and Intel). Now, according to this announcement, the ever outre and winsome Sprint has decided it is too much trouble to choose and that — like some French comedy — they will live happily ever after in some carefree, open spectrum menage a cinq. Google, as has become its want, explains on its blog how this signals a new era in which all Americans will enjoy a third wireless pipe, open applications, and — no doubt — greater independence from foreign oil.

Well I hope so. But after seeing Google break my poor little heart in the 700 MHz auction after I was so utterly convinced they would bid to win, I am very definitely reserving judgment here. Because while I keep hoping that this is all part of Google acting to alter the wireless world by making it more open, I cannot overlook the possibility that this is the world of giant corporate incumbents altering Google to be less of a threat. So even though Google is saying all the right things, I’m going to wait to see the FCC applications before I start jumping up and down for joy and declaring this a huge victory. Because electronic press releases mean squat compared to whether the applications for the new “Clearwire” entity contain provisions that provide the same level of openness as the C Block Conditions or the Skype Petition.

More below . . . .

The problem for me in looking at this is it has huge potential to be a giant transformative step forward, assuming it happens and works as advertised. This is now the gazillionth time the 2.5 GHz band has been reinvented as our last best hope for wireless competition. Back in the 1980s it was “wireless cable.” Then it was wireless broadband and “Project Angel.” Then it was reinvented as the Broadband Radio Service. But o.k., I can get past that. Lets just look at the possible outcomes.

The Happy Story The network is as open as promised and the cable guys are forced to eat the openness as the only way they can get a wireless strategy to beat AT&T and Verizon. This gives Google huge credibility as it presses to open other networks, arguing that it demands no more form anyone else than it does from itself. Users — particularly valuable business users — flock to a wireless network that lets them attach any device and run any application, and thus integrates seamlessly with their wireline networks. Other networks start to feel the pressure, and the argument that it is just technically impossible for wireless networks to open up is revealed as empty anticompetitive chin music. So when Chairman Adelstein proposes a mandatory “wireless Carterfone” rule applicable to the entire wireless industry in January 2010, it easily gets 5 votes. Just to make sure, Chairman Markey’s new and improved broadband network neutrality bill applies non-discrimination to all flavors of high speed access. the result is an era of unprecedented civic engagement, economic expansion, and endless montages of happy, economically well-off, interracial crowds going about their daily business with Star Trek-like technology, but cooler.

The Crappy Story Although Google wants to assure everyone that it will follow its own openness principles, eat its own dog food, walk the walk, etc., etc., it can’t actually make such terms enforceable because that would give AT&T and Verizon a competitive edge. And besides, the cable guys have a leetle more influence than we’d like to admit publicly, and while they understand that they need to learn to live with openness, they aren’t “ready” to have it as an enforceable FCC condition. Gradually, Google’s enthusiasm to hold Verizon’s feet to the fire wanes. Google and Verizon and AT&T revert to private negotiation rather than hammering it out in public. Then, one day, Google posts on its policy blog that Google, the cable operators, the telcos, and whoever else had enough clout to get into back room have come up with a principle for governing broadband access networks that everyone can abide by and love.

All Applications Are Treated Equally, But Some Applications Are More Equal Than Others — Not That We’re Naming Names, But The Less Equal Ones Contain The Initials P2P

Now I’d like to believe the happy story (and would be just as happy with Chairman Copps getting the 5-0 vote in 2010). In fact, I know of no reason why some version of the happy story shouldn’t happen. But bitter experience has taught me that stories featuring Comcast and Time Warner, or relying on companies to actually put limitations in enforceable writing, rarely end up as happy stories. Worse, I know how much I want to believe the happy story. It would be all too easy for me to just trust these guys won’t be evil and therefore give a free pass on stuff that deserves real scrutiny. OTOH, Feld’s Law of Expectation states: Always be prepared for the best possible result. It would be damned stupid if I and others in public interest community screwed up what could be the critical breakthrough in forcing open networks by refusing the support the right venture when it came along.

So I will reserve judgment until I see the applications filed. If they hold up on careful scrutiny, expect me to join in the cheering throng joining hands and singing Kumbaya. If the new Clearwire makes all kinds of promises but refuses to make them enforceable at the FCC, then I will not only join the angry mob — I will provide the pitchforks and torches to storm the castle before the monster can come to life.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. rest assured that this move will be exploited as “emerging competition” to undermine legislative or regulatory efforts towards net neutrality, regardless of how much neutrality is promised by the new coalition or whether it ever materializes

    some will claim in error that had net neutrality been in place, it would have suppressed incentives to form the new coalition or a variant thereof

    some will claim in error that allowing certain content to be tied to particular “fast-lane” bandwidth and GB limits stimulates other, “competing” content to do the same on other “competing” networks

    when RIAA, MPAA and Hulu cut an exclusive deal with a broadband provider, they’re not “upgrading” to a “fastlane” for a higher price to get out of the slow “bus lane” – they’re raising the price for existing uncongested bandwidth coupled with entry barriers to content which they do not represent while degrading the rest of it to “bus lane” status

  2. One critical difference is the prospect (by 2010?) of five national networks capable of providing mobile Internet access at speeds of at least a few Mbps down and a few hundred Kbps up, i.e. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile USA and Clearwire et al.

    Looking a mobile voice telephony across 200+ countries, when you have four or more viable operators you get rampant competition and things work to the consumers advantage, relatively independent of regulatory actions.

    So even if we consolidate back from 5 to 4, there’s room for hope for open mobile Internet access in the US (in 2010 and beyond).

  3. This is another wireless Titanic that will go down at the first hint of an iceberg. Unlike small wireless ISPs who have been providing good service for 15 years on a shoestring, this one will try to use money to make up for an unprofitable business plan. But losing money is still losing money, and eventually your capital runs out….

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