David Haskin

Firefox, open access and the brick wall of mobile operators

By David Haskin
February 29, 2008 9:54 AM EST
Mozilla says it is working hard to convince cellular operators to allow 3G subscribers use mobile Firefox, which, in a nutshell, demonstrates how the operators are resisting open Internet access.

Instead of allowing open Internet access, the cellular operators have long limited and controlled what users can access. This benefits operators for many reasons, but it provides virtually no benefit to users.

One reason this walled garden approach benefits cellular operators is that they get paid both by subscribers and by content providers. With open Internet access, only subscribers pay. Another benefit is that their approach reduces use of limited 3G bandwidth, meaning carriers don't have to build a more robust network.

This latter issue is much bigger than the cellular operators, who once touted their "unlimited" mobile data plans, will ever admit. But go to a place where huge numbers of technologists are gathered, such as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, and try to use a 3G network. With all the additional traffic, your connection will be extremely slow -- if you're able to connect at all. Making the network more robust would be expensive, another reason the operators don't want open access.

True, operators are becoming somewhat more honest about their networks' limitations. Verizon Wireless, for instance, once touted unlimited 3G access for laptop users for $60 a month. Now, it explicitly says that if you exceed 5GB of downloads per month with your $60 plan, it can throttle down your speed and, presumably, can eventually drop you as a subscriber entirely.

Those limitations are fine (for the carriers) if you only use 3G access to buy things from the carriers such as ringtones, music or video. But they're not fine (for the carrier) if their subscribers want to use 3G to approximate the desktop Internet experience. By keeping clamps on usage and controlling content, the carriers have finally been profiting from their 3G investment.

This is the brick wall that Mozilla wants to surmount as it tries to convince cellular operators to allow use of mobile Firefox, which would encourage more browsing by users of devices such as smart phones. And, for proponents of an open mobile Internet, that is why the mobile WiMax network that will be offered by Sprint, Clearwire or some combination of the two has the potential to be so disruptive.

Sprint has promised open access as well as service that will be faster and cheaper than 3G. Those factors would make WiMax more attractive than 3G and would force the other cellular operators to compete not just in terms of price, but also in terms of openness.

Doubt remains, of course, whether Sprint will get WiMax off the ground. But if it does, Mozilla's efforts -- and the larger effort to have an open mobile network -- may just succeed.