By Carl Howe
USA Today has a rather breathless story today titled, "AT&T flings cellphone network wide open". Here's the lede:
Starting immediately, AT&T (T) customers can ditch their AT&T phones and use any wireless phone, device and software application from any maker — think smartphones, e-mail and music downloading. And they don't have to sign a contract.
"You can use any handset on our network you want," says Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T's wireless business. "We don't prohibit it, or even police it."
AT&T's push to give consumers maximum control of their wireless worlds is being driven, in part, by Google. The tech giant is a monster in the Internet search business for personal computers, and is hoping to replicate that success in the wireless market.
Google (GOOG) recently announced plans to link arms with more than two dozen wireless companies, including Sprint (S), with the goal of developing an operating system that lets consumers use any application on mobile devices, much as they now do on PCs. Other partners include Japanese cellphone giant DoCoMo and handset maker Samsung.
Everything that Google has promised to bring to the wireless market a year from now AT&T is doing today, de la Vega says. "We are the most open wireless company in the industry."
The funny part about this openness by press release is that nothing has changed. AT&T's network allowed unlocked GSM phones to use AT&T SIM cards just as much yesterday as it does today. The major difference, as noted in the article, is that AT&T salespeople will be trained to tell consumers that they can buy unlocked phones and a SIM instead of buying a phone from ATT.
All this said, I can't complain about the trend that AT&T is jumping on. As I predicted when they were announced, Apple's gutsy iPhone marketing and Google's Android open handset software are forcing US wireless carriers to embrace a more open model. Carriers are beginning to recognize that open networks may actually be better for their businesses than the closed monopolies they have traditionally run, where the carriers told you what handsets to buy and what software to run.
The US mobile phone world is changing. But who knew that change would come by press releases instead of technology?
Disclosure: Author is long GOOG and AAPL.