Verizon’s announcement that it would open up its network next year to devices not sold in Verizon stores made headlines and generated lots of online buzz. It is a welcome development from a notoriously closed company and Verizon deserves kudos for stepping forward. Verizon might just be trying to polish up its image before the important 700Mhz spectrum auction coming soon, which looks like a battle between Verizon and Google after other major players decided not to bid. Or perhaps it genuinely wants to do the right thing in America, which lags badly in innovation, features, and prices compared to the regulated market in Europe. (The European cell phone market is one of several examples of regulated markets that are far more robust than the purportedly “free” market in the US, where the benefits of competition and innovation are all too often sacrificed to corporate greed and excess.)

It’s worth keeping in mind that the Verizon announcement may be less significant than it appears. David Pogue details some of the reasons to be skeptical in this column:

  • Verizon’s network only supports a proprietary protocol, CDMA, and not the GSM protocol that’s used by other carriers in the US and almost exclusively in Europe. Most devices designed to Verizon’s standards won’t be able to be used with any other carrier.
  • Verizon will only allow use of phones it has approved, a rather glaring loophole that gives it tremendous control over the process – perhaps by requiring manufacturers to omit features (like VOIP calls) that would permit you to lower your Verizon bill.
  • And most importantly, Verizon made no promises about the rates it will charge for network access by non-Verizon phones.

There are, however, a couple of reasons to be optimistic. One is another, less celebrated announcement by Verizon last week – in the long run, it intends to move to the industry-standard next-generation platform known as “LTE” (“Long Term Evolution”), supported by the other GSM carriers. This points to a true global standard that might avoid some of the equipment incompatibility that plagues us now.

The other is the possibility that Verizon’s move will inspire other carriers to open up their own networks. Maybe we’d even see a little of that much-vaunted “competition” and the carriers will feel compelled to give us relatively free choices of equipment for our cell phone service.