FCC to Review Innovation in the Wireless Industry

12Updated: The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously this morning to review innovation in the wireless industry, a commitment it signaled when it interceded in the banning of the Google Voice application from Apple’s iPhone.  The agency will also take a detailed look at competition in the wireless industry as part of a separate agenda item.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the wireless industry is an important source of economic growth for the country and expressed hope that the U.S. would soon have ubiquitous mobile broadband. Given the wireless industry’s importance to the economy, he said, the FCC should be “relentless about developing policies” to promote innovation. Those policies may include restricting exclusive agreements between carriers and handset makers. It could also focus on special access charges by carriers, which can raise prices for middle-mile access, as well as roaming agreements that can increase charges for consumers overseas as well as prohibit smaller cellular players from offering nationwide coverage.

However, the FCC’s ability to regulate companies such as Apple, which are not directly involved in radio aspects of the telecommunications industry, remains uncertain. A report issued Monday from Stifel Nicolaus noted that, “In the absence of an AT&T role, the FCC’s legal authority to intervene in Apple’s decisions of what to include in its App Store is not apparent.”

The FCC is charged with “regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable,” according to its web site, which means that if Apple feels too much heat from the agency it may seek to kick it out of the kitchen.

Update: In the wake of the FCC announcing its review, several organizations have emailed me their perspective.

An FCC official said the chairman isn’t pondering regulatory steps, but is instead trying to gather a “business-like” overview of what has worked and what hasn’t in terms of innovation in the industry, with the idea of encouraging both new entrants and new ways of thinking about wireless broadband. “In short, at times the Commission has gotten it right, and at times it has gotten it wrong,” Genachowski said this morning. “The purpose of initiating today’s inquiry is to make sure that we get it right as we move into the brave new world of wireless broadband.”

So far, consumer groups have largely praised the move. They’ve also offered up their own recommendations of items they feel should fall under FCC scrutiny, such as carriers blocking certain text messages and high roaming charges.

Sprint, the nation’s third-largest wireless carrier, said it will participate in the review and hopes the FCC will address the issue of high pricing for middle-mile access. Vonya B. McCann, vice president, government affairs, at Sprint Nextel Corp., said in a statement, “We are hopeful that, as part of this inquiry, the Commission will examine the impact vertically integrated telecommunications companies have on the wireless industry, particularly with regards to special access pricing.”

The CTIA said it wasn’t interested in setting a policy agenda, but that it welcomes the chance to show off how innovative the wireless industry is today. AT&T referred me to the industry association’s official statement in lieu of offering up its own.

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