Want better wireless service in America? Socialize it.

September 14, 2011

Imagine you’re headed out of town for the weekend in your new Prius. If you don’t own a Prius, don’t worry — this is an alternate reality. You’re leaving Maryland for New York and looking forward to a leisurely afternoon drive.

But there’s a snag — a big one.

A small group of private companies actually owns the roads, and they want you to follow their rules — so you can’t get to New York unless you drive an SUV. To get on Interstate 95 north, you’ve got to have an Escalade or an Explorer. On the other hand, the company that owns the roads around Washington allows only green cars, so those big SUVs have no way of getting from New York to vast swaths of Maryland.

Oh, there are also towns that neither type of car can drive to because no one has built any roads there yet. Sorry! That’s just how someone decided to make the transportation network work.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, I’ve just described the current state of the U.S. wireless phone business.

We’ve got a serious problem with the way our wireless providers operate, and if we don’t do something soon, we risk slipping behind the rest of the world in how we do business and how we innovate.

There are two major challenges. The first is that we don’t have enough bandwidth in this country. Anyone who owns an iPhone on AT&T will happily tell you about it. Not only do we not have enough wireless bandwidth, but all of the companies who are trying to compete with one another want to compete with their own networks that they control — like making special roads that only certain cars can drive on.

The other issue is the lack of nationwide standards for the technology that cellphones use to transmit signals. AT&T and
T-Mobile use a certain wireless standard, GSM, and Verizon and Sprint use another, CDMA. In theory, AT&T and T-Mobile’s phones should work on each other’s networks, and so should Verizon’s and Sprint’s. But the companies have purposely made them incompatible. Additionally, all of these services leave big portions of the country disconnected or poorly connected because they haven’t sufficiently built out their networks.

The top four mobile companies have a chance to correct this as they build out their next-generation 4G networks, which they say will be able to handle more traffic at faster speeds. But instead of building a national network of superhighways in a coordinated way, they are are essentially building more lanes on the same private roads. The bottom line is that Americans would continue to endure higher costs and less choice in their devices and carriers.

This scenario could be avoided. In President Obama’s plan for job creation, he calls for a network to be built to support nearly all of the country, but I think it should be taken one step further.

Washington should be aggressively regulating where and how private companies build wireless networks. The government should be taking an active role in the corralling and cajoling that is clearly required to make these companies compete in ways that benefit America as well as their own bottom lines.

Instead of watching Verizon and AT&T try to out-monopolize each other on coverage areas, the companies could battle it out in ways that actually make sense for consumers — with services and devices. Yes, they’ll balk at the concept of sharing spectrum and no longer having a stranglehold on the corners of the country they occupy — but do we want wireless access in America to look like a gangland turf war? And that’s really what it boils down to — petty squabbling over snatches of bandwidth.

In Britain, government regulators forced British Telecom to open its phone network to other carriers, and the resulting flood of competition drove prices way down for consumers. You can get broadband service in England for about $6 a month (yes, $6) — that’s comparable to what most people get in the United States for triple or quadruple that number.

Why not look farther down the road with our wireless industry? Why wait to regulate a company once it has done the legwork, when we could move a lot faster in more areas by making wireless carriers work together? Let’s become the leader we should be in next-generation wireless by injecting a little, well, socialism into the process.

Sure, it may be a scary proposition, but just think: You’ll be able to argue about it online from any spot in the country.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and has appeared on CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg TV and G4’s “Attack of the Show.”

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