Next cell trend lets users hold the phone

Verizon wants people to feel the love.

"Our arms are wide open," CEO McAdam said. "As long as the technology matches, we want to have you."

For a nominal fee, that is. McAdam said there would probably be a charge -- call it a cellphone corkage fee -- for people to bring their own handsets to Verizon's network. He said it's too early to say how much the fee may be.

"It's not in our interest to make a big barrier to having customers join our network," McAdam acknowledged.

Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said there was no need for his company to follow Verizon's lead in pursuing a more open network policy.

"We saw the light a long time ago," he declared. "We're the most open wireless company in the country."

By that Siegel meant that AT&T already is amenable to customers using other providers' handsets, as long as the rival carrier has "unlocked" the phone for use elsewhere. "What we can't do is guarantee that such devices would work as well as if you had bought it from an AT&T store," he said.

Similarly, Siegel said AT&T is open to any application concocted by third-party developers. But he said the carrier can't guarantee that such applications would work on its network.

"We set the standard for openness," Siegel said.

Well, no. At least not if Verizon is serious about its "any apps, any device" pitch. And not if Google pulls off its cellphone operating system -- dubbed Android -- that would be designed to run applications on virtually any handset on any network.

In a sign of the looming battle, Microsoft Corp. said Tuesday that it supports Verizon's open-network policy, suggesting that a slugfest is brewing with Google over cellphone software.

Analyst Blair Levin at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. wrote in a report Tuesday: "The longer-term impact depends on a number of factors, including whether Verizon develops technical specifications that are easy for developers to meet, whether handset/application makers can invent something cool enough that a significant number of consumers are willing to pay for it and whether we are a nation too wedded to handset subsidies to move to this new model."

Lawmakers reacted favorably to Verizon's announcement.

"While we do not yet have all the details, the company's decision appears to be a step forward for consumers," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. "I'd like to see additional carriers listen to their customers and offer a more open platform."

Verizon initially opposed any requirement from the FCC that open networks be a condition to bid for the upcoming auction of wireless spectrum. Its position softened as it became increasingly apparent that Google would prevail in promoting the benefits of open networks.

Feld, at the Media Access Project, said Verizon now realizes its future growth depends on having the wireless capacity to offer state-of-the-art services. "They can't do that with their current spectrum," he said.

Feld credited the FCC's Martin with understanding that consumers would be best served by forcing industry players to open up -- at least if they want to participate in the auction.

"This proves that competition is not enough," he said. "Sometimes you need a push from regulators for consumers to get what they need."

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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