Internet Video Needs a “Carterfone” Decision: Any Lawful Device

Carterfone on display in the lobby

Carterfone on display in the lobby

From 1877 until 1968, consumers in the US were only allowed to use telephone equipment that was provided by the telephone company. It was a closed system, where your only choice of handset was the one that the local phone company would rent to you. This was codified by the FCC:

FCC Tariff Number 132: “No equipment, apparatus, circuit or device not furnished by the telephone company shall be attached to or connected with the facilities furnished by the telephone company, whether physically, by induction or otherwise.”

The Carterfone was a special purpose device which allowed mobile radio users to be “patched through” to telephone lines via an acoustic coupling. In other words, the telephone receiver just sat on top of the Carterfone. This was a violation of the rules, and it was challenged as an illegal device by AT&T.

In the Carterphone decision of 1968, the Federal Communications Commission reversed this, allowing customer owned devices to be connected to telephone lines. This eliminated the phone company’s monopoly on equipment, and opened the door to a wave of innovation. This spawned consumer FAX machines, modems, cordless phones and cheap home answering machines. Consumers had choice, and the network was open (at least from the perspective of equipment.)

Today we have a similar problem with video content providers. Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC and Hulu all provide access to television shows which you can watch in your web browser. You can view the content on your desktop PC, on your laptop, and you can even plug your laptop into your television to watch in the living room.

But, along comes the modern Carterphone: devices like Google TV, Boxee and Roku. All of these are basically web browsers in a small box which make it more convenient to connect to your TV than a laptop would be. And, like AT&T in the 1960’s, the video content sites have responded by blocking these innovative devices.

The Internet now needs a Carterphone decision. With the blocking of Google TV and other devices, there is a clear violation of the principal of network neutrality. Consumers should be able to view content with “any lawful device”, as the Carterphone decision said.

Clearly, where devices have limitations, it should not be a content providers responsibility to address them. For example, if a site uses Flash to play video, it won’t work on the iPhone. That is Apple’s choice, and an intentional limitation of the device. Content providers certainly should not be required to make their content work with every possible device.

But, when a device has the technical capabilities to access content, it should not be blocked by the content provider. Doing so is discriminatory protectionism and a violation of the tenets of network neutrality.

  • JDL

    While I agree with this sentiment is this not also an argument for being able to use any compatible modem with Instead users are forced to rent a modem for $6 a month. Perhaps give users the choice. Rent a completely supported modem for $6 a month or bring your own modem that we cannot support however you are welcome to use. I don’t expect AT&T to support my answering machine or fax machine. But I am happy that the FCC allows me to use it despite AT&Ts best efforts.

  • JDB

    Hey JDL, I think you’ve misread your agreement. I’ve been using my own modem/router on Sonic ever since I became a customer.

  • JDL

    Check out the rules for new customers. “Customers who wish to use their own equipment may do so, however, the equipment fee is required for service and the customer must retain the rented equipment.”

    So there is a $6 even if you don’t use their modem.

  • JDB

    I stand corrected. And I must say, that policy is obnoxious.

  • Tom2ndMate does allow you to use your own equipment, which matches this post’s theme. But if you have a problem and call support, support needs to be able to figure out if the problem is in the premises equipment; the rented copper pair; or in the backoffice equipment. has calculated that if you have their modem (either as the only modem, or on hand to swap in for your own modem), then the cost of both the modem and the support labor is covered by a $6/month charge. If you didn’t have their modem to swap in (and were not paying the $6/month), they would need to set up a completely separate pricing scheme with you to get money to pay for support calls, that would probably be longer calls on average because of not being able to swap in known-compatible equipment.
    It’s not ideal, but is a small company, they need to keep down overhead by reducing the number of different options they offer, so they adopted this policy for all new customers since most of those new customers want to rent equipment from anyway. Since some of the options they DO offer are available nowhere else (like Fusion, particularly with two bonded circuits); I’m OK with them adopting this policy of always having to pay for backup Sonic equipment on hand even if your primary equipment is your own.

  • sonicnet