Thinking Tech

Dell can't launch its phone business here

Dell can't launch its phone business here

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The Olympics isn't the only thing Brazil is getting before Chicago. It is also (along with China) getting the first Dell phones. I'm outraged. I think you should be, too.

Dell Inc. (formerly Dell Computer, like Apple) wants to get into the phone business.

Why not. Lots of people like phones.

Dell wants to base its new phone on Google Android, a version of Linux that is becoming popular with phone makers worldwide. Motorola and HTC of Taiwan have already introduced Android kit into the U.S.

So, where can I go get mine?

I need a ticket to Rio?

The Olympics isn't the only thing Brazil is getting before Chicago. It is also (along with China) getting the first Dell phones because Dell hasn't yet won the "permission" of any major U.S. carrier to introduce them here.

Most reporters are covering this aspect of the story without comment, But I'm outraged. I think you should be, too.

If you wanted to install a Local Area Network in your home, a feat that a few decades ago required a small army of technicians snaking wire everywhere, you can just plunk down $50 for a radio, plug it in, run the disk and voila. You're now a radio broadcaster, sending millions of bits every second all around your place at a frequency of (variously) 2.4 GHz or 5.4-5.7 GHz.

That's WiFi, and if you want to plug your iPhone into the signal it will be happy to comply. You're a radio station, a virtual Internet service provider. Just like the coffee shop down the street.

But Dell can't sell you such a radio -- that's what a cell phone is, a radio -- without a carrier's permission. It's not that the Dell phone is dangerous. The carrier just wants a cut of the action.

This is a feature, not a bug.

It's this way because your government, over the last decade, decided to sell all the electromagnetic spectrum it could find in the open market. It sold the spectrum to carriers, mostly AT&T and Verizon, and pocketed billions of dollars, which assure us of surpluses for years to come. (That last is a joke.)

The carriers built their cell phone networks as intelligent networks, filled with lots of computers that identify every bit going over them and collects money for them. Every service on a carrier network has three sources of revenue -- you, the person selling you the service, and the money collected on the phone. Bits aren't bits, they're services -- every one of them.

In contrast we have the Stupid Network you are probably using now. The Internet is designed to be stupid at the center, with intelligence pushed to the edge. Any computer that meets basic technical standards connects, without asking carrier permission, and the bits fly by at a dizzying pace.

Bits. Not services. Bits. The service a bit performs are defined in your PC, and in the server you're connected with. An e-mail bit is a Web page bit is a video bit is a phone call bit. A bit is a bit is a bit.

Because the wired Internet is stupid, it's cheap and easy to use. It generates trillions of dollars in value for billions of people, every day. Because the wireless Internet is "smart," it's expensive and the business is hard to get into. A cell phone bit is a service with a price tag, so we don't use as many.

The business is so hard to get into that Dell, the second-largest PC maker in America, is having to launch their phone in Brazil and China, rather than the good old USA.

We can change this. But it will take an enormous effort of political will.

The first step is assuring that networks don't use their power to discriminate between devices or services that meet technical specifications. This is called network neutrality, and the FCC under its new chair, Julius Genachowski, wants to do that.

But there's a second step that needs to be taken. The National Broadband Plan needs to support stupid wireless networks, like WiFi, not just proprietary networks owned by carriers. Fortunately the man who authored the original paper on The Stupid Network, David Isenberg (left), was hired by the FCC just this week as an expert adviser.

The plan is due before Congress in February. Wish David well. I'm sure Michael Dell will.

Just remember. The fastest-growing network is a stupid network. Embrace stupidity.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure