Will Verizon

Admiring CDMA handsets in foreign countries that aren’t sold in Canada? You may be envious at Verizon’s announcement that next year it will offer open access to mobile devices it doesn’t sell in the U.S.

However, GSM handset owners are likely shrugging their shoulders, saying they can buy a smartphone anywhere and plug it into any compatible network around the world.

There’s no word on when or if Bell Canada or Telus, the CDMA carriers in this country, will follow the lead of the U.S. carrier, which said Tuesday that in addition to its standard rate model supporting phones it sells it will offer “bring your own” phone plans by the end of 2008. The actual rates have yet to be announced.

“It’s an interesting deal,” said Chris Langdon, Telus’ vice-president of network services. “It’s something for sure the industry as a whole will pay attention to.”

Early next year Verizon will publish technical standards handset manufacturers will have to pass in the carrier’s new US$20 million test lab to be certified for its network. Pass the test and the phone can be used.

Among the interesting questions is whether that test will become a standard adopted by other carriers around the world.

Langdon said Telus already works with handset makers to get devices running on its network, although you can’t buy a phone outside the country and immediately link it to his company’s network.

He doubts Verizon will merely publish its standard on the Web and take a manufacturer’s word that its device meets it. Instead, said Langdon, some sort of certification will be needed if only to assure users that the carrier won’t let devices that can disrupt the network connecting to it.

The news generated immediate speculation that Verizon is trying to do a pre-emptive strike against Google, which intends to bid on the upcoming 700Mhz wireless spectrum auction in the U.S. and to release an open source handset operating system dubbed Android for any handset maker. Among those in its corner are Motorola, HTC and Qualcomm.

Langdon is among those who feel Verizon’s move is partly to check Google as well as to blunt the success of the iPhone, sold by U.S. competitor AT&T.

However, Iain Grant, managing director of the Montreal-based telecom consultancy The SeaBoard Group, said in an interview that no one knows what Google’s plan is except to get more eyeballs to its Web sites.

More likely, he said, Verizon is responding to regulatory moves such as last week’s decision by a German court temporarily preventing carrier T-Mobile from locking iPhones to its network. Apple is trying to restrict iPhone sales to one carrier per country. But if the German injunction is upheld it could open the door to many European carriers to sell and support the device.

“That sort of regulatory-imposed freedom is the next big thing,” said Grant.

Until that happens here Bell and Telus won’t likely follow Verizon either until the iPhone arrives here or an enterprise-sized company asks the Canadian carriers for permission to use a handset that hasn’t already been approved, he said.

Grant noted that among the problems a “bring your own phone” policy raises is whether the carrier will offer technical support for such devices.

“It’s a landmark move,” telecom analyst Ron Gruia of Frost & Sullivan,” said of the Verizon strategy. “A lot of people are going to see this as a way for Verizon to respond to competitive pressures from products like iPhone and the Google operating system alliance. It put Verizon in a position where it had to respond.”

It could also be an attempt by Verizon to gain subscribers from CDMA competitor Sprint, he said, with the lure that customers could keep their phones after they move.

Whether Bell and Telus will follow suit will in part depend on the upcoming AWS (advanced wireless services) spectrum auction rules to be announced by Industry Canada, Gruia said, which will determine whether they and existing wireless suppliers will face new competitors.

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