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

Carterfone on display in the Sonic.net lobby

Carterfone on display in the Sonic.net 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.