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Careful what you ask for

Search engine king Google would like to see the Internet's openness in the wireless world: Do we really want spam on our mobiles?


September 1, 2007  


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This summer, the ber-search engine company Google asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S. to reshape the wireless industry.

The request came as the agency prepares to auction off a chunk of wireless spectrum in the 700 MHz range, which will be vacated by broadcasters south of the border in early 2009.

The details of Google’s request are less important than the overall goal that the company is pursuing: namely, a wireless Internet that has full, open access, much like the wired Internet we all enjoy today.

But wait a minute. Hold the iPhone. Today’s wired Internet is a great thing, there is no doubt about it. Many of us just could not function without it, and it has enriched business and personal life in numerous ways. But let’s face it, the Internet is not without its problems.

Specifically, there is all that spam, and all those viruses. My inbox includes a couple every morning — the few that my network-based spam/virus blocker does not catch. Go online and look at what HAS been caught: the missives about hot stocks, Internet pharmacies, and lonely women who want me to visit their Web sites out-number the genuine e-mail messages by a large margin.

By contrast, Canada’s wireless carriers have done a very good job of limiting the number of unwanted text and voice-mail spam messages that reach my mobile phone.

The notable exception to this is junk faxes, but they are a problem on wired phone lines as well. (In fact, the fax is a good example of what happens when spam takes over. This technology, once a vital business tool, has gone the way of the punch card thanks to a flood of junk faxes and the adoption of more useful and secure methods of communication such as e-mail.)

Private networks

One reason wireless services have been protected from the junk that flies about the Internet is that wireless runs on private networks. The network operators in Canada — Bell, Rogers, Telus and a handful of others — control what services are offered to their customers and what service providers are allowed access to the network.

Unlike the Internet, on wireless networks these operators can also actually enforce these restrictions.

Text messaging-based marketing is a good example. Canada’s wireless network operators have worked together to create an environment that promotes the use of mobile marketing campaigns and ensures that any such campaign works on all of their networks, while at the same time insisting that any mobile marketer adheres to a strict code of conduct that protects wireless users from unsolicited pitches.

They have also established a regime in which only a handful of companies — mobile content aggregators — have connections into the wireless networks. It is in the best interests of these intermediaries to ensure that their customers, the advertisers, adhere to the rules. The result is that mobile marketing is a healthy and growing communications channel in Canada, but is not negatively affecting the wireless experience of those users who want no part of it.

Protecting wireless

Wireless devices are increasingly becoming the primary means of communication for many Canadians, in their work and personal lives. While in principle a fully open network environment is desirable, in practice companies such as Google that are keen to see this happen need to do a better job of addressing the negative aspects of such an open environment before regulators feel compelled to mandate such universal access for the wireless sector.

Spam and viruses already threaten the usefulness and security of Internet-based communications such as e-mail, newsgroups and the Web.

Until there are effective ways to shut down this type of disruptive traffic, everything that can be done should be done to keep it off wireless networks even if that means these networks must remain private, closed systems for the foreseeable future.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@words-tm.com.