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My Chat With the FCC Wireless Chief Ruth Milkman

Ruth Milkman, head of the Federal Communications Commission’s wireless bureau, said Tuesday that Chairman Julius Genachowski’s open-Internet proposal would allow consumers to bring any phone that isn’t locked into a network to another carrier’s network. That would mean if you want to bring a Blackberry phone acquired through Verizon Wireless to Sprint Nextel, you could do so at the end of your contract, Milkman says.

A draft of Genachowski’s proposal, which will be voted on Oct. 22 (the vote will be the beginning of a months-long rule-making process before a final policy is created), also takes into consideration the unique capacity constraints of the wireless network. On the road, a cell phone connection is turned over from one cell site to another, a unique feature of mobile technology that the FCC is looking at as part of this process.

After Tuesday's press briefing, I sat down with Milkman, the figure behind some of the most controversial regulatory moves from the FCC in the three months Genachowski’s been in charge. Genachowski has said the FCC will be the “smart cop” of the Internet beat. And so far, Milkman has been doing much of the policing.

She’s launched a broad investigation into competition in the wireless industry, a market that was largely left alone by previous FCC regulators. She’s looking into whether practices like exclusive handset deals, roaming deals between carriers and service costs offer a raw deal to consumers and hurt little carriers.

She’s investigating Apple’s blocking of Google Voice on the iPhone and other Internet voice services on the iPhone that work exclusively on AT&T’s network. The review prompted AT&T to reverse its position on VoIP services for the iPhone, saying it will allow applications like Skype to run on its networks.

Here's what I asked her:

How are the proposed rules different from conditions on the C block during the 700 MHZ auction? There, net neutrality rules were put in place that allow any device to attach to the network and prevent Verizon Wireless, who won the spectrum, from blocking Web content. The difference between what we are thinking about in the general NPRM (notice of proposed rule-making) and the C Block is that we are not proposing a no-locking rule. So I guess it’s no block but not no-lock. If consumers can get an unlocked device and not harm the network, the consumer ought to be able to attach that device to a network. Does a service provider have to unlock the device it provides to the consumer? The draft doesn’t go that extra step..

But given historical relationship between carriers and device makers and the subsidies that the carriers provide to consumers, will there be enough incentive for manufacturers to make devices that work on any network? That’s a good question and the reason why this is an NPRM. What we are trying to figure out are the set of principles and applications that will really work and make sense for consumers.

The letters sent to AT&T, Apple and Google about the blocking of Google Voice on the iPhone were prompted by media reports. And the review prompted AT&T to change its policy on Internet voice services for the iPhone on its network. Please talk about your approach to enforcement and if this is an indication of how you will move forward with problems you see in the industry. So the commission has a variety of tools at its disposal, if you will. The commission can promulgate rules. It can act on the basis of complaints. It can, on its own, initiate investigation of practices that it feels may violate the statute or rules. And then there is the bully pulpit. In my dozen years or so at the commission, I’ve seen the commission effectively use all of these various tools and I think the trick is to figure out which ones are right for which particular situation.

On the investigation into wireless industry competition, how will you approach the review and the question of whether there enough competition in the industry? Carriers say there is an ecosystem to consider that includes the networks, software vendors, and devices. Consumer groups say the experiences of consumers – many of whom complain about high prices and not enough flexibility or choice of devices and services – are an indication that there isn’t enough competition. So you mentioned the wireless ecosystem, which is a term the commission used in the notice of inquiry, when it explained it was taking a broader look at competition than perhaps done in the past. Statutory requirement is for commercial mobile radio competition, or CMRC. But in this NOI (notice of inquiry), the FCC said we’re not going to view ourselves are limited to that but will also look at wireless broadband. A lot of things do relate to each other and we want to look across the value chain so that we can really accurately describe the state of competition.

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 14, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
 | Tags: att, blackberry, fcc, iPhone, net neutrality, ruth milkman, verizon  
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