Verizon opens another door

Feds' bandwidth options grow as the company throws open access to its wireless network

WITH ACCESS TO ONE of the nation's largest wireless networks, federal agencies soon will get new choices for bandwidth and user equipment, according to telecommunications specialists.

The announcement by Verizon Wireless last month that it would allow non-Verizon devices and software to connect to its network will make the vast wireless system available to custom applications.

The primary market for the new network-only service is consumers who would be allowed to connect devices from other companies to the network. But it also could be good news for government users who would be able to use the commercial network for their unique communications, logistics and telemetry needs.

Verizon Wireless said it plans to release technical network interface standards early next month and will host a developers' conference to answer questions about minimum standards.

'We will allow customers to connect any device that meets minimal technical standards,' said Lowell McAdam, president and chief executive officer.

The service will not be limited to phones or other traditional wireless devices. Possible applications could range from digital cameras and online gaming devices to onboard electronics in cars. Devices using the network will have to be certified by Verizon's lab, which will test only for network connectivity.

'After that, what the device looks like, what the user interface looks like, what applications go on it is up to the provider of the device,' McAdam said.

Major wireless carriers traditionally have limited their networks to devices and applications offered and supported by the company. Verizon Wireless will continue to offer this full-service option and expects that most of its customers will continue using it for the foreseeable future. But the company was motivated to add the new service option by a variety of pressures, including market demand, the accelerating pace of technical innovation, industry moves toward open platforms and changes in the government regulatory environment.

Warren Suss, founder of Suss Consulting, said the federal government has not successfully centralized the procurement of wireless equipment across its agencies, losing the potential benefit of buying in bulk. The rise of unbundled device and bandwidth offerings could spur federal officials to review the current decentralized acquisition methods, according to some telecom specialists.

Suss cited the government's need to gain control of its inventory of wireless assets, the challenges it faces with regard to pricing, issues that have arisen with regard to wireless service operation in terms of managing usage and, finally, security problems.

'In the near term, the impact of this change will be limited because of the incompatibility of networks,' Suss said. In the longer term, the shift to unbundled bandwidth and device offerings 'will exacerbate the challenges the government already faces.'

New devices and applications already are being encouraged by the creation last month of the Open Handset Alliance, an industry organization led by Google to develop handsets and other wireless devices based on an open-source platform called Android. Products using Android are expected to be available in the second half of 2008, the same time Verizon Wireless expects to begin offering its new option.

McAdam said Verizon's move is not related to the Android initiative.

'We have been looking at this for a very long time,' he said, and the company is not among the 34 alliance members. But he said Android devices will be welcome as long as they are compatible with the network.

And there is a possible rub. Verizon Wireless operates a Code Division Multiple Access network, so only devices using the CDMA standard will be compatible.

Many other networks use the Global System for Mobile Communications standard, and devices probably will not be freely interoperable between networks using the different standards.

Apple's popular iPhone, currently offered only by AT&T, uses the GSM standard, in addition to offering Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity.

Hackers have managed to unlock the phone so it can be used with any GSM service, but it does not use CDMA, and unlocked iPhones cannot operate on the current Verizon Wireless network. If and when a compatible iPhone appears, it too will be welcome, said Dick Lynch, Verizon Wireless' chief technology officer.

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