His remarks even included some polite digs at Apple Inc. for requiring iTunes songs and App Store apps to run on Apple devices.
Speaking to a global audience, the head of the U.S. wireline and wireless carrier said wireless smartphones and tablets need to be able to operate across countries and geographies in what is known as “spectrum harmony,” which is today a major obstacle with wireless networks.
“AT&T is committed to the world’s most advanced network, and we want it the most open and highly available and easily addressable,” Stephenson said. “Cloud [computing] will be the catalyst … and all operators are pursuing that same path. It’s consistent across all geographies, but there are significant public policy issues to pursue.”
Giving consumers the ability to play the coming avalanche of videos across wireless devices and networks “is going to be everything,” he said, arguing that public regulators in the U.S. and elsewhere need to find the “highest and best use” when allocating licenses to private carriers for wireless spectrum.
Regulators need to be “aggressive about getting spectrum into the right hands and policies have to harmonize across geographies,” he added.
“If our object is to grow the [wireless] pie, interoperability is necessary,” he said. AT&T will begin rolling out a 4G wireless technology known as LTE across the 700 MHz band in the U.S. in mid-2011, he said. “Spectrum is going to play a huge role [globally], especially as we move to 4G. It’s most important that regulators have to be aware of this if we want to create interoperability across geographies and countries.”
U.S.-based wireless users on most tablets and smartphones aren’t able to easily connect to European and Asian 4G cellular networks, at least without expensive roaming costs.
Stephenson was joined in the crowded keynote session by several carrier executives from around the globe who also issued calls for openness. Some said there is a need to eliminate “walled gardens,” a concept that generally refers to carriers and others that limit the various sites that wireless users can browse to on the Web.
Wang Jianzhou, chairman of China Mobile, also raised the theme of keeping networks and devices open, noting interoperability cooperation with carriers in Japan and South Korea.
Stephenson picked up on his sentiments adding: “Chairman Wang said it best, that customers don’t seem to care about network access … or whether it is Wi-Fi or 4G. The customer expectation for an open and seamless [wireless] environment will only increase and the more we facilitate that openness, [the better].”
Stephenson added there was a lesson to be learned from text messaging, which was once allowed only within a single carrier network in the U.S.. “Text messaging was a closed wall, and ultimately we created interoperability and the demand for text just skyrocketed,” he said. “An open and interoperable environment … will drive mobile broadband and mobile broadband with the cloud will drive the next wave.”
In the U.S., there were about 26 million text users in 2001, which more than doubled to 58 million by 2009, because of texting interoperability across networks, Stephenson noted.
He called the Amazon Kindle e-reader a good example of interoperability, since it allows a user to read an Amazon e-book on that device as well as on other devices such as an Android smartphone or an iPad. “The customer experience is agnostic,” he noted. “It’s a perfect example of how the mobile Internet and cloud computing are going to be powerful over time.”
Stephenson’s comment on the Kindle was considered ironic, since AT&T held the U.S. carrier exclusive on the Apple iPhone for nearly four years before Verizon Wireless began selling the iPhone 4 last week.
In fact, Stephenson mildly took Apple to task for requiring paid music downloads to run on Apple products as well as its App Store apps. Noting that consumers pay for music on iTunes, he said those songs are “Apple OS and device dependent, but we’ll see [marketing and financial] models less dependent on the device” in the future. He didn’t suggest any specific examples, however.
Regarding video downloads, Stephenson said that half of tablets and laptops today are streaming video content in the U.S. but customers can’t easily port the videos across devices, incurring some expense if they do.
“Buy once and run anywhere is slow to emerge,” he said. “We in the [wireless] ecosystem have to come to grips with this. Buying an app on one OS and buying it again on a second or third [OS], that’s not how customers expect to experience this world.”
He added: ” A tidal wave is coming with 4G and cloud computing and…customers are going to do what they want. Our objective is to make this seamless and open as possible.”