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FCC to look closely at wireless competitive landscape

The FCC on Thursday said it plans to launch an inquiry into competitive practices in the wireless industry in a move that could further shake up an industry that is already evolving rapidly with new players, apps and services.

In one of the first moves in the first meeting of the new FCC under the new Obama administration, the commission approved inquiries into three specific areas: enabling innovation, analyzing and encouraging competition and examining industry billing practices (which will touch wireline operators as well). Next steps: formally open proceedings, gather comments and set a record that could – but not necessarily – produce regulatory change.

The FCC will "look more broadly at all of the elements that affect the mobile marketplace," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the meeting.

While the wireless industry is in a period of massive change, with new data services, mobile applications and broadband data networks emerging, wireless operators have also drawn criticism for limiting user access to key capabilities if they conflict with existing products, tying subscribers up into stringent, long-term contracts and playing hardball with partners, among other would-be offenses.

Industry trade group CTIA noted competition is already strong, with the mobile ecosystem in particular exploding in the past twelve months with new apps (and app stores), smartphones and data network alternatives.  “The wireless ecosystem – from carriers, to handset manufacturers, to network providers, to operating system providers, to application developers – is evolving before our eyes and this is not the same market that it was even three years ago. In this industry, innovation is everywhere,” said CTI president and CEO Steve Largent.

That said, access to the mobile industry is far from unfettered, as carrier deals, app store approvals and other real-world machinations often determine whether, and how, new technology or a new competitor gets exposed to customers. In recent weeks and months, upstarts like Google, Skype and Vonage have complained of seeing their app store approvals lag or competitive services like VoIP over mobile limited – ostensibly by incumbent players seeking to protect themselves from new competition.

For instance, last month, the FCC made a pointed inquiry into why Apple had not yet approved Google Voice software in its applications store, asking Apple, Google and AT&T to submit their explanations of the situation. That feedback came recently, with Apple saying the app was still under consideration and AT&T even saying it was willing to reconsider usage of mobile VoIP apps over its network.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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