My friend Tim Wu has just published an excellent piece in Forbes Magazine about a way to keep our spectrum free, even after the mobile carriers have colonized it: require them to allow any of us to "attach" things to their networks.
What’s needed to spur innovation is a simple requirement: that any winner of the auction respect a rule that gives consumers the right to attach any safe device (meaning it does no harm) to the wireless network that uses that spectrum. It’s called the Cellular Carterfone rule, after a 1968 decision by the FCC in a case brought by a company called Carter Electronics that wanted to attach a shortwave radio to AT&T (nyse: T - news - people )’s network. That decision resulted in the creation of the standard phone jack. Applying the Carterfone rule to the next spectrum auction would ensure that our key fob designer need only look up standard technical specifications and then build and sell his device directly to the consumer. The tiny amounts of bandwidth the fob used would show up on the consumer’s wireless bill.
The right to attach is a simple concept, and it has worked powerfully in other markets. For example, in the wired telephone world Carterfone rules are what made it possible to market answering machines, fax machines and the modems that sparked the Internet revolution.
Attachment rights can break open markets that might otherwise be controlled by dominant gatekeepers. Longshot companies like Ebay or YouTube might never have been born had they first needed the approval of a risk-averse company like AT&T. If you’ve invented a new toaster, you don’t have to get approval from the electric company. Consumers decide how good your product is, not some gatekeeper.
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