Taking Credit for Mediocrity

On my drive home from work yesterday, I heard a story on NPR about mobile phone giant Verizon’s plans to make their network more open to different types of wireless devices. I was happy to hear the news, because I think that the result will benefit both Verizon and consumers. I was completely blown away, however, to hear Verizon announcing this decision as if it were some kind of new, ground-breaking approach and NPR reporting on it as if they were right.

The gist of the announcement is that Verizon will soon make their services available to customers who have not purchased a phone directly from Verizon. This means that you could buy any phone you wanted, be it a mobile phone you’d carry in your pocket or a mobile broadband card you’d plug into your laptop computer, and use it to connect to Verizon’s service in order to make calls. This is a major shift in the way that Verizon has done business in the past, where in order to use their services you were more or less required to buy a phone from the company.

By opening up their network in this way, Verizon hopes to encourage a much wider range of devices to connect to their service. They envision a day when you might be able to make a call to your oven over their wireless service and tell it to begin preheating before you left the office so that your dinner would be hot by the time you got home, to note just one example from the NPR story. In order to make up for the loss of revenue they would have previously earned by selling you a phone, the company will likely charge higher rates to customers who use their own devices, but this does offer more choice and flexibility to consumers while allowing the company a new source of potential revenue.

This is all fine and good. I heartily congratulate Verizon for making what seems to me to be a very good decision. In spite of this enthusiasm, I remain shocked and offended that anyone would be impressed by such a basic thing.

Can you imagine a world in which you were required to purchase a television from the cable company when you signed up for their service? How about a system in which each major car company built their own road system, and in order to drive on the Ford highway network, you had to buy a Ford vehicle, which then wouldn’t work on GM or Toyota’s roads? To pick a more closely related example, what if in order to sign up for telephone service in your house, you were required to purchase a land-line telephone from the phone company?

These examples are all absurd, but they are directly analogous to the current state of the wireless service industry. You wouldn’t be inclined to make a big deal out of it if the cable company told you that you would be allowed to use your own television, because you already take it for granted that they would never dare tell you otherwise. All Verizon has really done is announce that they will soon be implementing a model that other communications companies have been using since the telegraph first became commercially viable in the 1830s.

Now that Verizon has made such a great leap forward by catching up with nearly two centuries of common sense, it is my fervent hope that their competitors soon do the same. I look forward to the day that I can buy a device without worry for which networks it will or will not connect to. The ability to take devices that meet my needs for technology no matter who supplies them and combine them with wireless service providers that offer services I want and good signal strength and coverage in areas I would like to use them is very promising to me.

I believe that this kind of ubiquitous availability and flexibility of service providers and devices is a desirable and inevitable outcome. As more and more devices become capable of accessing a network to receive information from outside sources or to report their status across the network to other devices, this kind of flexibility will become increasingly important. The ability to leverage those devices in ways we haven’t even thought of yet will be both useful and exciting. I can imagine a day in which I sign up for wireless service that not only works for my mobile phone, but also allows all of the devices in my car and my home to connect through the same service plan.

Just don’t expect me to be grateful because my service provider doesn’t require me to buy all my home appliances exclusively from them.

-posted by Mark

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5 Responses to Taking Credit for Mediocrity

  1. Dana says:

    Not to lessen your argument, since I agree completely, but I do believe you had to buy phones from the phone company back in the day. Of course, that’s because they had to be hardwired into the wall when the phone company installed the line into your house. We’ve come quite a ways since then. I have really never understood the system of having certain brands and types of phones tied exclusively to certain carriers. It’s so annoying, and such a blatant marketing ripoff.

  2. Will says:

    You’ve been able to use unlocked phones on any GSM network (AT&T and T*Mobile in the US) since the beginning, but hardly anyone has. Maybe Verizon (Sprint, etc.) are just responding to the market, which seems to prefer phones built into a contract rather than more expensive unlocked phones.

  3. TheGnat says:

    Speaking of mediocrity, has anyone ever given a thought to the irony of “roaming” charges on cell phones? Companies charge you for using a device that is designed for mobility and travel in an area other than your home area. “Long Distance” is only very slightly less ironic on cell phones.

    There are neither long distance nor roaming charges on Japanese cell phones (land lines do have long distance charges though). My efforts to explain the concept of “roaming” to Japanese friends might as well have been an effort to explain quantum mechanics…

  4. Mark says:

    Will,

    I should perhaps have been more clear. Yes, you have long been able to use unlocked phones on some cariers’ networks. However, this was not true of all networks. Beyond that, the exciting part, to me, of Verizon’s change is that they will allow any device, including a whole range of devices that aren’t even phones as we think of them, to use their network as a transport medium. It is this change, and the potential for new applications that it represents, that holds the most interest for me.

    Gnat,

    It is the very rare mobile phone plan in the U.S. that charges for long distance these days. Even roaming charges are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Most providers will charge you for connecting to someone else’s network (because the owner of that network turns around and charges them), but you can make a call from anywhere on the network of a major provider and not expect any kind of roaming charge.

    The comparison to Japan is not a fair one, regardless. The entirety of Japan can be covered by a single geosynchronous satelite. There are not huge, empty spaces in Japan where the million-dollar cost of a cell tower will be able to cover the homes of only a few dozen people. This makes it much easier and hugely more cost-effective for a Japanese provider to be able to build a network that has no such thing as roaming charges because there is no place their customer can go that is actually outside of their coverage area.

  5. TheGnat says:

    It probably helps that Japan simply doesn’t have the space to put up with the nonsense of every company having its own towers. On the other hand, 80% of the country is mountain, which doesn’t make it easy to have coverage everywhere. And when I say roaming charges, most companies there also have coverage in Europe and the rest of Asia, and these areas are also not extra.

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