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Editorial

+ - When Good Intentions Meet Poor Research

Submitted by
dbthaw
dbthaw writes "Professor Tim Wu of Columbia University Law School was recently cited in this InformationWeek article for his arguments about, amongst other things, interoperability among wireless carriers. (SeeTim Wu, "Wireless Net Neutrality: Cellular Carterfone and Consumer Choice in Mobile Broadband." (February 15, 2007).) The Wu's arguments describe a series of failures in the wireless telephony industry to promote innovation and maintain proprietary controls over their networks. (For Wu's full article, see here.)

In particular, Wu makes a lengthy comparies between rules promulgated by U.S. Federal caselaw and Federal Communications Commission decisions which prevented wireline telephone carriers from blocking "attachment" of devices they didn't manufacture or approve.

While there certainly are some notable parallels between these examples, Professor Wu's research overlooks a critical technical component. Interoperability between the devices of wireless carriers is not merely blocked by "proactive" choices made by wireless carriers. Rather, it is primarily a function of differing technologies. Verizon and AT&T Wireless, for example, use fundamentally different technologies for their wireless connectivity. In other words, for a device to operate on both networks — that device would have to be manufactured with two transceivers (I use this term broadly to encompass all the necessary codecs and processing hardware/software necessary each of CDMA and GSM technologies).

Conversely, for a manufacturer wishing to offer a new product, such as the example of Apple's iPhone discussed in the InformationWeek article, that manufacturer would have to make a technical investment in designing two different wireless transceivers for their device.

My comments should neither be taken as an attack on the recommendations of Professor Wu nor the many other points he discusses in his full report. Rather, I am attempting to point out a concern I have with how policy arguments about modern Information Technologies are constructed.

My concern is that potentially important arguments are defeated not on their policy merits, but rather because of a failure to properly understand the technologies. It would not require much time or research money to employ a talented undergraduate engineering student (something Columbia University certainly has in ample supply) to explain the fundamental technical differences between the operation of the Public Swtiched Telephone Network and the various wireless communications carriers. From this, Professor Wu's argument could be reworked to draw similar overall conclusions, without exposing them to easy targets for failure to properly understand technological implementation.

It is my hope that researchers like Professor Wu will consider these thoughts in their future writings, for the work they undertake is (in my opinion, at least) important, and should risk being dismissed as a whole for slight misunderstandings of technical concepts."

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