"This is 'Magic' and this is 'Jack'," the little girl says in the video ad, holding her two cute puppy dogs up to the camera. The girl's father, magicJack inventor Dan Borislow, then asks her, "Kylie, did you know that your dad is going to let everybody try a magicJack in the whole country for free?"
Free for 30 days, that is. magicJack is a popular service comparable to VoIP, except that after you hook its app into a USB port on your broadband connected computer, you plug the USB gadget to the RJ11 slot in your telephone. The cost: $39.95 for the initial year and $19.95 for subsequent years to make local and long distance phone calls.
"I love the magicJack!" Kylie declares. It's all very warm and fuzzy, but not to CTIA - the Wireless Association, which is worried about the next-generation version of the gizmo. It's a plug-and-play, "carrier agnostic" attachment that magicJack says will allow mobile users to complete their mobile phone call via magicJack's network instead of their carrier's, and presumably save money on wireless bills.
Grrr, says CTIA. Using these devices "would clearly interfere with licensees’ exclusive rights to their spectrum and carries the same potential for harmful interference as wireless boosters and repeaters," the trade association warned the Federal Communications Commission on Friday. "Moreover, without a clear affirmation of the exclusive rights assigned to wireless licensees to operate on their licensed spectrum without outside interference (or in the case of magicJack, illicit operations on exclusively licensed spectrum), the benefits derived to the public from innovative wireless services will be greatly diminished."
Indeed, magicJack version 2.0 will include a femtocell signal booster to let consumers break out of mobile network jail. They may even be able to use their old GSM cell phones with discontinued service plans, its promotional literature promises, or connect to other femtocell-powered magicJacks: "All the user has to do is come within eight feet of the magicJack one time to register the connection and then talk away within a range of a 3,000 square foot house."
Now we're interested
A femtocell base is something like a mini wireless cell phone tower that improves home connectivity. You can set it up by attaching the device to your broadband modem or router. The big telcos have been experimenting to various degrees with femtocells. As we've reported, early last year AT&T rolled out its broadband-linked 3G Microcell gadget, which puts a tower-like access point in the consumers' home. Verizon and Sprint followed suit around the same time. But analysts say they're skeptical as to how much enthusiasm consumers will show for these devices, or whether they will help cell phone subscribers as much as the big carriers (who don't need to put up so many cell towers).
Now, however, we have the possibility of mobile users purchasing femtocell technology that does not come through their carrier, but through a firm that specializes in helping consumers end-run around carrier services. CTIA says this is wrong because, among other reasons, the innovation could spawn harmful signal interference.
"The law is clear," the group insists, "the unauthorized operation of these devices is an obvious violation of the FCC’s rules and the Communications Act. The FCC must affirm that signal booster operators must obtain FCC licenses and that 'the sale and marketing of such devices to unauthorized parties is illegal.'"
The carriers have paid billions for their spectrum, and they aren't excited about the possibility that a host of unlicensed femtocells in an apartment block, for instance, might interfere with their signals.
Give us a boost
But not everybody agrees with CTIA's request that the FCC clamp down on this use of femtocell technology. Wireless amplifier maker Wilson Electronics, for example, argues that while cheaper repeaters and amplifiers can pose interference threats to CRMS networks, the best solution is not an outright ban on their unlicensed home use, but equipment certification requirements to ward off interference.
"It appears indisputable that handset amplifiers can be robustly designed and marketed with the oscillation detection technology and shutdown logic necessary to prevent interference to wireless networks," Wilson contends. "That being the case, the Commission can protect wireless networks from the interference caused by the sale and use of low quality boosters and repeaters by adopting a rule that provides that only repeaters, boosters and handset amplifiers manufactured with integrated oscillation shutdown protection will be certificated for use in the CMRS."
This move would be consistent with the FCC's "Open Networks" policies, Wilson suggests—presumably the FCC's Carterfone principle, which guarantees users the right to attach any legal device to a common carrier network that doesn't harm it. Then, Wilson urges, "leave it to consumers to choose whether to use such certificated devices."
No surprise that CTIA is very skeptical of this approach. "Commonsense and good engineering practice demonstrate that mobile devices have a much more widespread ability to cause harmful interference," its filing warns. "The wireless operator cannot determine precisely where the device will be used and therefore such devices have much more potential for harmful interference."
No one but us
Meanwhile, magicJack maker YMax is telling the FCC that its next-generation device will help put the kibosh on the epidemic of crank 911 calls coming over VoIP networks. These often untraceable pranks, "many made by repeat callers, often children," frequently come through subscription-expired phones that still offer 911 capability. In 2008, the Commission released a Notice of Inquiry asking for solutions to the problem.
The next-generation magicJack, YMax promises, will enable the called public safety agency to obtain the location information of the call. "Moreover, YMax’s technology also serves the public interest by introducing a near-term, viable [Automaker Location Identifier] solution for 911 calls made by nomadic VoIP subscribers—a potentially life-saving solution that the industry and the Commission have been seeking for years," the company adds. "No one else has suggested a viable ALI solution for 911 calls made by nomadic VoIP subscribers that will be workable until years from now."
Thus concludes this wrap-up of the kinds of arguments for and against magicJack's innovation—only one of the many skirmishes we can expect as more consumers cut the cord and take their telephone and broadband experience to the airwaves.
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