Thursday, September 18, 2008

How Truly Open Are Open Networks?

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about open networks these days. Some believe it’s just that – talk. Others hope for one universal network similar to European GSM Networks but on a global spectrum. The rest are sitting back with a furrowed brow wondering what everyone else is talking about. What is an open network and how can you reap the rewards? The answer has some fortunate and unfortunate pieces.
The current setup for cellular networks in the United States, and globally, is a little segregated. Europe has aligned under the GSM network, making it an “open network” within the continent. Other major wireless areas such as Southeast Asia, including China and Japan, have also adopted GSM networks. The United States, however, is split, with some carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile, using GSM and other carriers, like Verizon and Sprint, using CDMA. To understand the impossibility of an open network, you need to understand how GSM and CDMA work.

The modern GSM network uses a SIM card that allows users to switch between carriers. This means that you can take your GSM cell phone and use it on AT&T, T-Mobile or any European carrier as long as you use the same SIM card. It also means that if you want to use your new open source Google Android phone, you can theoretically buy it from T-Mobile and take it to AT&T to get set-up on their service.

The CDMA network, on the other hand, locks a phone to the provider you purchased from. Therefore, if you buy a phone from Verizon, you have to use Verizon service for as long as you have that device. Verizon has just announced that it will accept other CDMA phones on its network (so if you still want that Android phone, you can wait until Sprint gets it in 2009 and bring it over to Verizon). The rest of the CDMA carriers do not have this capability, though, so no luck using the new Blackberry Storm from Verizon on Sprint’s service – at least right now.

As long as there is this discrepancy in networks, there cannot be an open network. While it is nice to know what different service providers hope for in opening networks, it’s more important to know the limitations they have with doing so. After all, you don’t want to buy a $600 Nokia off of Craigslist and then realize it won’t work with your carrier.

Service providers are actively working to fix this problem, though, with the new 3GPP LTE network (4G). Most service providers in the United States, Europe, and Asia have announced their intention to start moving their networks over to LTE, with Verizon beginning trials this year. That means that for the first time ever, there will be a truly global open network. This global open network will open many more doors and result in more applications, more innovations and more choice – so here’s hoping the “hope” of the service providers turns into more than just hype.

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