It seems a few American carriers have started working with Google to disable access to tethering apps in the Android Market in recent weeks, ostensibly because they make it easier for users to circumvent the official tethering capabilities offered on many recent smartphones -- capabilities that carry a plan surcharge. Sure, it's a shame that they're doing it, but from Verizon's perspective, it's all about protecting revenue -- business as usual. It's Google's role in this soap opera that's a cause for greater concern.
You might remember that Google made a big splash a little over three years ago during the auction for the C Block 700MHz spectrum that Verizon now uses for its LTE network, intentionally driving up bidding past the $4.6 billion open access trigger without really having any intention to win it:
"Google's top priority heading into the auction was to make sure that bidding on the so-called 'C Block' reached the $4.6 billion reserve price that would trigger the important 'open applications' and 'open handsets' license conditions."
Makes you wonder what it is about selectively blocking software by carrier request that would constitute "open applications," doesn't it? This isn't the first time Google has pulled apps (tethering apps, even) per carrier agreement, but it is the first time they've come dangerously close to tangling with the new 700MHz regulations as a result.
Indeed, there's some interesting talk originating on HowardForums today that -- at least in the case of Verizon's 4G phones -- blocking the tethering apps could be in violation of those open access regulations that are now in effect. The verbiage in question comes in Section 27.20 of Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which reads:
"Licensees offering service on spectrum subject to this section shall not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice on the licensee’s C Block network..."
In reality, Verizon is almost certainly within the bounds of compliance. If you read further in, there are exceptions for hardware or software that would violate the network's technical standards or be in violation with regulatory compliance, but nothing that would allow an operator to arbitrarily block tethering apps simply because they're looking to monetize the capability. Here's what probably saves them, though: the FCC's concerned about Verizon's activity at the network level, not what's going on in the Android Market. Verizon isn't blocking PdaNet and related apps, per se -- it's merely making them harder to come across. If it were to disallow sideloading (the same way AT&T does), they might have a little more explaining to do... but as it stands, there's nothing stopping you from grabbing the APK through some other means and giving it a whirl.
Never mind the fact that Verizon seems to be to riding the rules of Block C open access right up to their hairy edge, though -- what should really appall you here is the fact that Google's playing right along. Even if carriers aren't in violation of any law on the books with this move (and similar ones we're likely to see down the road), it's unclear what would possess Google to selectively block access to applications at a carrier's whim after it put over $4.6 billion on the line simply to ensure that the 700MHz spectrum's open access provisions went into effect. Heck, it even petitioned the FCC to block Verizon's bidding back then when it had concerns over the company's ultimate intentions!
Ironically, Google isn't in the underdog position anymore in mobile -- so if it's merely trying to win and maintain carrier favor here, that's less necessary than ever. In the year 2011, can you picture Verizon threatening Google with a webOS-, iOS-, and Windows Phone-only lineup? I certainly can't, especially when they've built an entire empire (very successfully, may I add) around the Droid brand.
Allow me to leave you with a quote from Android boss Andy Rubin that he made nearly two years ago while vehemently denying that there was any Market rejection of a Skype app:
"We also look forward to the day when consumers can access any application, including VoIP apps, from any device, on any network."
I couldn't agree more, Andy.