Verizon Wireless' open access move: The historic details

"We will allow customers to connect any device that meets our minimum technical standards, and be activated on our network," announced VZW CEO Lowell McAdam this morning.

It finally happened, either the inevitable or the impossible depending on your point of view: A major US carrier has committed to opening up its existing cellular networks to access by the customer's choice of devices, assuming they comply with basic technical requirements. With that comes the customer's choice of applications, and the mobile operating system on which they run.

"Customers' needs are increasing and diverging," VZW CEO Lowell McAdam told reporters today. "Soon Verizon Wireless will not be able to meet customer's needs with our specific portfolio of devices and applications. To keep up with the pace of innovation in the development community, and get ahead of customers' needs, we've decided to encourage the development of new devices and applications by further opening our network."

Can we actually apply the term "open access" to VZW's expanded service? McAdam threw the term out there himself, and then let reporters and analysts pick it apart to discover for themselves whether it fit or not.

"...The accelerating pace of innovation and the expanding needs of customers demands multiple business models. This additional alternative is something that some of our customers, and some of our competitors' customers, have told us they want."

Lowell McAdam, CEO, Verizon Wireless

"For the past year or so, much has been said and written about so-called 'open access,"' he remarked, "with many different definitions. So I want to be clear as to what we are doing: First, in early 2008, we will publish our technical standards for devices to interface to our network. We will also host a conference to explain our standards and get input from the development community on how to achieve our goals for network performance, while making it easy for them to deliver devices and applications.

"Second, we will allow customers to connect any device that meets our minimum technical standards, and be activated on our network," CEO McAdam continued. "We do not expect this to be a difficult or lengthy process, since we will only be testing network connectivity."

In other words, the only qualifications a third-party device would have to meet for VZW to accept it is whether it connects to its CDMA or PCS networks. What services it offers, what applications it presents to the user, what operating system it uses - Verizon Wireless will not test these aspects of the device.

In fact, whether the device even qualifies as a "phone" per se will not matter, according to VZW's Chief Marketing Officer, John Stratton. He told a Dow Jones reporter that the type of device a customer might connect to VZW is "subject to the imagination of the marketplace. As we think about the unconventional model here, going beyond the traditional feature-phone product, you can certainly see a time where devices that are today sort of stand-alone become networked devices. So things like gaming devices, imaging devices, digital still cameras - all manner of different products, but we're really looking to tap innovation from the marketplace, and look to different providers, different developers, different hardware manufacturers to come to us with a notion of connecting their product to the network."

"I would say that the Google Android OS, the Microsoft [Windows Mobile] OS, the Palm OS, [or] any number of different operating systems and other contributing technologies, could be utilized [on] our network...There's no reason to preclude it."

John Stratton, CMO, Verizon Wireless

Verizon Wireless' CTO and resident IEEE fellow Dick Lynch took that ideal one step further: "If somebody has the technical capability of building a device in their basement on a breadboard, and they want to bring it to us to be tested, the philosophy and structure of this program says, have at it. We'll test it, and if it passes, we'll activate it on the network. Does it make it more difficult to be the small guy on the block? I'm not sure that it does necessarily today. With all of the various component pieces of devices that are available in the marketplace, I think there's a real viability for the small guy to have as much success here as for the very big guy."

If you listen carefully to the message, you do start to see a certain bipartite picture emerging: Verizon Wireless has every intention of continuing to choose its technology partners -- the big guys, to borrow a phrase from CTO Lynch. It's those manufacturers -- Motorola, Samsung, LG, BlackBerry, Palm, and the others in their league -- that get the special treatment.

Their handsets will be more rigorously tested, including for usability, reliability, and security, not just connectivity. VZW calls this "full service," which is a term it may very well have borrowed from the petroleum industry.

"Because we feel so strongly about the Verizon portfolio, full-service model," Lynch said, "we test a device beyond the minimum standards. We force it to meet the standards that we want our customers to become accustomed to. And we test more than basic interactivity with the network, more than just basic safety of the network, and experience for the customer at that network level. We test into the application level. We test the user interface. Those are the kinds of things we will not be doing for the customer who brings their own, so to speak.

"We will be very clear in our descriptions and our communications going forward that we're going to stick to network-level testing, minimum standards that will not impact the network or other customers, and that's the only obligation that we will insist upon to allow a device to be on our network," the CTO continued.

Next: Is there an Android in Verizon Wireless' future?

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