Candid Martin makes everyone know his stance on another cry for reform, even before the gavel falls

FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin promised to oppose a request from Skype that would force cell phone companies to open access on their wireless networks.

Skype’s request, placed last February, petitioned the FCC to apply the 1968 Carterfone decision to wireless networks, forcing carriers to allow third-party devices and software much in the same way that it forced landline monopolist AT&T in 1968. Currently, Skype is finding its software restricted – and sometimes even contractually forbidden – from installation on mobile devices, of which wireless carriers generally maintain tight control.

“As … wireless handsets have become an integral part of most Americans’ lives, carriers are using their considerable influence over handset design and usage to maintain control over and limit subscribers’ right to run software … of their choosing,” reads Skype’s original request (PDF). “In an effort to prefer their own affiliated services and exclude rivals, carriers have disabled or crippled consumer-friendly features of mobile devices. Carriers are doing so, moreover, in violation of the Commission’s Carterfone principle and the strictures of the Commission’s original order permitting the bundling of consumer equipment and wireless service. The Commission should act now to enforce Carterfone and unlock the full benefits of wireless price competition and innovation.”

The request is premature for an industry that is embracing open wireless access on its own, said Martin, noting that “Verizon Wireless has [already] committed to [opening] its entire network to devices and applications of consumers' own choosing."

Martin’s remarks came Tuesday, while speaking (PDF) at the CTIA Wireless convention in Las Vegas: “More and more wireless providers, including T-Mobile and Sprint through their participation in the Open Handset Alliance, and AT&T, are also embracing more openness in terms of devices and applications ... this interest now appears to be shared across the industry.”

“I will circulate to my fellow commissioners an order dismissing [Skype’s petition],” said Martin. His order will need the support of two other commissioners for it to take effect, and will likely come from the commission’s Republican appointees.

In a statement released today, Skype representatives blasted Martin’s decision, accusing the FCC of taking a “step backwards” in wireless progress and endorsing a policy of trust without oversight.

“While we are cautiously optimistic that the carriers will deliver greater openness,”said Skype’s Christopher Libertelli, who is the senior director of the company’s government and regulatory affairs. “Unfortunately, if the FCC acts on the Chairman's recommendation, it will have given up any tools to protect consumers if they do not.”

Democratic commissioner Michael Copps expressed disappointment in Martin’s decision, noting that “this is not the time for the FCC to declare victory and withdraw from the fight for open wireless networks.”

 “While we are all encouraged by preliminary commitments from some of the major carriers, we haven't seen the details yet on how they are going to proceed … and the devil is always in the details, isn't it?” said Copps.

PC World notes that Martin delivered his speech immediately after Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam, who spoke strongly against the “clear and present danger” of government regulation for wireless carriers. “To regulate this business is like taking a Polaroid snapshot of an industry moving at full-motion video speeds,” said McAdam, “By the time that film develops, it's no longer relevant to the environment that we're in.”

The FCC will, however, require open access on a large portion of the 700 MHz wireless spectrum, which recently sold at auction for a total of $19.6 billion. The “upper C” block, which requires open access thanks to efforts by Google, was purchased by Verizon Wireless for $4.7 billion – $100 million above the reserve price.

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