SHIFT: Why the U.S. cellphone system is un-American

Any TV you buy will work with any cable or satellite TV service you have. Any PC you buy, even a Mac, will work with any Internet service provider you use. Any landline phone, wired or cordless, will work any phone company's landline service.

Duh, duh and duh, right? So can you buy any cellphone you want regardless of who your carrier is? Of course. Unless you live in the United States of America. Why? Because the FCC is a wuss and a monopoly enabler and can't even follow its own rules.

More on this after the Continue jump.

Earlier this month in Las Vegas, FCC chairwuss Kevin Martin announced his intention to dismiss a year-old Skype petition, which called upon cellphone carriers to completely open their networks and allow us to buy and use any handset we want, approved by the carriers or not.

The carriers have announced their intention to open up their networks, thanks in large part to pressure from Google's Linux-based open operating system, Android, and the resulting Open Handset Alliance. So Martin figures no additional government action is necessary.

Not surprisingly, the carriers haven't taken even a baby step to follow through on their announced open-network intentions. Without FCC jabbing, why should they? The only ones who agree with Martin's active non-action are the carriers. Everyone else in the industry from handset makers to retailers, along with Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copp, think Martin's laissez-faire lethargy is loopy.

Soul Stealer
Why should you care? Because you're being cellphone short-sheeted, that's why. Take, for instance, the Samsung Soul. This beautiful metallic slider has a "magical touch" navigation pad with backlit touch controls that change depending on the application — play, fast forward and rewind icons for music, + - x ÷ symbols for the calculator, etc — but that's not the cool part. The Soul has a 5MP camera, collects data at 7.2 Mbps, and is just half an inch thin.

But your Soul is lost, along with dozens of the other advanced cellphones I saw in Vegas, because no U.S. carrier has agreed to carry them. The same happens with applications and services. Verizon, Sprint and AT&T Wireless each have their own music and video services. Theoretically, someone could develop a Rhapsody-compatible cellphone, but no carrier would carry it. The iPhone is the exception that proves the rule, since no handset maker has Apple's juice.

Several handset makers such as Kyocera are shut out from the major carriers, and many of Sony Ericsson's models are "unlocked," meaning they will work with any GSM carrier's network but are hard to find because U.S. carriers don't carry them. It's funny how Apple gets elbowed for its closed iPod/iTunes ecosystem, but the cellphone carriers and the FCC get off scot-free for perpetuating this stifling near-monopoly.

Law & Disorder
It's not like the FCC can't and shouldn't do something about this. On June 26, 1968, the FCC made what is known as the Carterfone Decision, which established the right of consumers to attach any device to the Bell telephone network, as long as said device did not harm the network. This precedent gives the FCC the legal cattle prod it needs to force the carrier doggies to move along.

In some ways the FCC has even more jurisdiction to cajole the carriers. Unlike the Bell System's arguably quasi-private landline network, cellphone spectrum belongs to you and I. Like TV broadcasters, cellphone carriers are granted slices of this free public spectrum, which they then use to strangle competition. I think the technically term for that is chutzpah.

There are those who argue open networks would have a deleterious effect on the market. Carriers would have no incentive to invest and improve network infrastructure. Without the revenue from services it sells, rates would go up. And without carrier subsidies — discounts and rebates you get when you opt-in to another two years of service just to buy a new phone — handset prices would jump like LeBron James for a backhanded stuff.

Bells & Whistles & Balls
These arguments, of course, are demonstrably wrong. Open networks and handsets in Europe and Asia are far more advanced than they are in the U.S. And increased competition amongst the various U.S. carriers and handset makers would keep prices for both devices and services if not low certainly not sky-high.

Even if prices do rise, we'd be compensated by a far wider selection of exciting both hardware and software. But bringing the carriers to heel will take more than logic and evidence. It will take balls, something the FCC clearly lacks.