iphone 3g, meet the cell phone cartel

Okay, just to be clear, this isn’t yet-another-iPhone-3G review.

I’ve read enough of those over the past two weeks I think I’d puke if I even saw another one.

Most reviews have been glowing, some embarrassingly so. And, yes, the iPhone is great — the best smartphone to date, in fact — but it still carries some significant flaws.

The primary one among them, in fact, has nothing to do with the iPhone itself.

Instead, it’s the network.

(Or the lack thereof, in my case as a Whitehorse resident.)

As with any mobile phone, to buy an iPhone, you’ve got to lock yourself in with a particular mobile service provider in a particular country for a long period of time.

So to buy an iPhone, I had to sign a 36-month agreement with Rogers promising to pay them about 60 bucks a month for the privilege of using my new device on their network.

(Wow. Even to write that makes me shake my head. What was I thinking?)

And that just covers me for one locale: Vancouver. If I go anywhere else, it’s gonna cost me more, and dearly so. Mobile long distance rates in Canada are brutal. 

And if I dare to roam southward over the border, I’d best prepare to mortgage my soul.

The whole idea of a mobile phone is just that: to be mobile.

The unfortunate irony is, however, that true mobility carries a significant and relatively uncertain price tag.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

Most mobile telephone networks are digital, which means they transfer nothing more than bytes. That’s the same stuff you send when you use email or the web on a computer.

Mobile telephone networks today don’t carry voice signals; they carry a representation of the sounds you make in digital form. 

In the days of yore, when telephone networks were analogue, “voice” as a commodity was an accurate representation of the service. 

But that’s from a time when Culture Club was on the charts.

Nowadays, we’re paying too much to be beholden to that ancient paradigm.

Voice, pictures, video, text messages, it’s all the same.

Telephone companies offer complicated calling plans for no reason other than to obfuscate of this fact.

They want to confuse you and I in an effort to produce a veneer of value for the “services” they provide, thus pushing us up the rate scale.

Really, it’s all smoke and mirrors. At the end of the day, they’re just selling us raw data wrapped up in some marketing gibberish.

So it’s unfortunate that, along with a groundbreaking mobile device, Apple wasn’t ballsy enough to force groundbreaking network access.

Apple should have formed what’s known as an MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator. As an MVNO, Apple could have provided network access transparently to iPhone users without openly involving Rogers, AT&T or any other recognized brand.

Instead, they would have bulk-bought access to mobile data networks and resold the traffic to iPhone users as an Apple service.

That’s what Virgin does, and even Walt Disney has operated an MVNO service.

As an MVNO, Apple could have done away with the complex locale-based service regime of traditional mobile phone companies and replaced it with what the iPhone is really all about: mobile data.

Apple’s MVNO wouldn’t sell voice or text services. They’d sell access to a data network.

You’d still be able to make and answer calls, and engage in text messaging. How you use the iPhone wouldn’t change.

Just how the value of the service translates into cost would be changed.

Long distance calls would be non-existant, because “where” wouldn’t be relevant.

Text messages would be rendered free, or replaced by instant messaging. And, no matter where you got off the plane, your iPhone would work (unless, of course, you landed in Whitehorse).

Apple’s MVNO would replace the complex, service-oriented rate plans of the traditional mobile phone companies with simple data plans. 

Those plans would generally be flat rate, with additional fees for going over in data volume.

(Wow, that sort of sounds like how we get billed for land-based internet. Go figure.)

Of course, Apple doesn’t have to be the first purely data-based MVNO on the scene. Any company could do this.

But the combination of the popular iPhone and its software perfectly position Apple to play that role.

This is because the iPhone operating system is derived from Apple’s Mac OS X operating system.

And one of the coolest features in Mac OS X is its native voice, text, and video communication client, iChat.

I use iChat every day on my Mac to place video and voice calls to people all around the world for no charge at all.

If Apple had formed an MVNO and released an iPhone with iChat capabilities, they would have forever changed the face of mobile telecommunications.

There would be no more need for a mobile voice network.

And that’s probably why Apple didn’t — or couldn’t — form an MVNO.

Not because they didn’t want to, or didn’t see the benefits of such a move.

But because the telecommunications providers recognized that a data-only iPhone was the first step in the dismantling of an industry that is, arguably, a cartel.

I wouldn’t be surprised if AT&T has refused to lease their networks to an Apple MVNO, sensing the threat of a data-oriented iPhone.

What’s more, I’d posit that AT&T actively banned iChat from the iPhone as a clause in a contract before they even let the iPhone on their network in the first place.

Because there’s really no technical reason for iChat to be missing from this device.

The absence of iChat on the iPhone is really quite tragic from a consumer perspective. In fact, it’s borderline collusion, assuming AT&T blocked its inclusion.

The iPhone is the killer smartphone that most reviews make it out to be. Unfortunately, the mobile telecommunications cartel prevents it from reaching its true potential as an advanced mobile data device.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 25, 2008.

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