Months of grumbling by consumer and trade groups and whispers of a possible FCC probe have culminated in exactly that, as the Federal Communications Commission voted yesterday to launch a broad investigation into the wireless industry. Acknowledging that the world has shifted from a "voice-centric" model to one of ubiquitous mobile Web, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the FCC aims to speed innovation by ensuring the marketplace remains competitive. While that's good news for consumer advocates, large carriers like AT&T have reason to worry.
The probe will be divided into three wide-ranging categories: competition, innovation, and consumer access to accurate information. Under these headings, the regulatory body plans to investigate matters such as spectrum availability, business practices, networks, and applications. The commission also said it's seeking suggestions on how wireless services can solve real-world problems in areas like education, energy, and health care.
Although it's not impossible, it's highly unlikely the FCC will undertake such a large investigation and find nothing new to regulate. Several senators challenged exclusivity deals—like the one tethering Apple's iPhone to AT&T—earlier this summer, and last month the FCC questioned Apple, Google, and AT&T about Apple's barring of a Google Voice app from the App Store. An advocacy group also urged the FCC to institute neutrality rules for wireless networks and has argued against Apple's rejection of certain apps, like Google Voice or Skype's VoIP app, from the App Store.
But the inquiry isn't all about punishing "evil" corporations. The FCC hopes to find ways to optimize available spectrum and perhaps open up some more to wireless carriers. It will also look at the varying degrees of wireless network quality and availability in rural v. urban environments (the FCC is already looking into why some rural areas of the country still lack access to broadband Internet services). In the end, the FCC—a regulator whose archaic codes are more suited to the days of TV broadcast towers and analog telephone than iPhones and InterWebs—is mostly getting itself an education.
But regardless of your feelings on net neutrality or competition in the wireless space, the FCC is undertaking one initiative that is sure to be a crowd pleaser: an investigation into why wireless bills in American are so high. A recent OECD study shows that Americans own some of the most expensive wireless services in the world. That, says the FCC, needs to change. We hear that.