Killing the golden airwaves


Aesop’s Fables are a collection of stories attributed to a slave and storyteller who lived in Ancient Greece during 620–560 B.C. In what is perhaps Aesop’s most famous fable, a family had a goose that laid a golden egg every day, and while this made them richer, they decided it was not happening quickly enough. Imagining the goose must be made of gold inside, or be harboring a great many golden eggs, they decided to kill it and lay claim to all of the riches immediately, but upon cutting it open they found its innards to be like that of any other goose…and no gold. The moral of the story: Those who demand too much too fast lose everything.

All of Aesop’s Fables contain life lessons designed to help children choose wisely when making life decisions. Yet judging by some of what passes for “adult activity” in this world—including our own telecommunications industry—we might all benefit from an Aesop’s Fables refresher course.

First let’s inspect some of those golden eggs. My previous entry gave a snapshot of the growing market for mobile widgets, which in short is the technology in play when they say, “…and this is how you download an application” on the current iPhone TV spots. There appears to be major market potential for these mini-apps that, at the click of a button on a wireless handset, will launch an application, open a window to a web page or retrieve specific user-requested information such as travel schedules, weather and financial updates, sports reports or a myriad of other things limited only by imagination. All of it hitched, of course, to a star that is slowly beginning to rise over the B/OSS landscape: The service delivery platform (SDP). Opportunity looms large, too, for services offered by mobile virtual network operators (MVNO). An MVNO is one of the hundreds of companies around the globe that does not own its own wireless network—no mobile switching center (MSC), radio access network or licensed frequency spectrum—but instead resells wireless services under its own brand name through OSS integration with the network of a facilities-based wireless operator. Some examples include Boost Mobile, which uses Sprint’s network in the U.S., SingTel Optus’s GSM network in Australia and Telecom New Zealand’s CDMA network, and the legions of MVNOs that provide their branded services over KPN’s networks in EMEA. (KPN actually established a new SDP specifically to serve its sizable and growing MVNO ecosystem.) Some market observers believe that MVNOs could account for up to 20% of Europe’s wireless market share within five years.

Here is where things begin to go badly for the goose, and for this lesson we go not quite as far back as old Aesop but merely to the late 1990s. After the Telecom Act of 1996 deregulated the U.S. telecommunications market, a lot of great work by many in the OSS world helped deliver to consumers a wider array of choices for their communications services. Unfortunately, consumers also faced a new threat: Slamming, the unscrupulous practice whereby some phone companies, usually long distance but sometimes local carriers as well, were “signing up new customers” without their consent and usually without even speaking to them. A company that engaged in slamming would submit orders to the local exchange carrier to change a customer’s long distance carrier without the approval of the customer.

Particularly in the U.S., the rising profile of cable broadband companies as triple-play providers, the rampant consolidation of many former independents under three death stars (Verizon, AT&T and Qwest), and unlimited nationwide wireline and wireless calling plans have blurred if not vaporized the old ILEC vs. IXC wired battle lines, and with them much of the “traditional” slamming, if you will. Problem solved, right?

Nope. Time for a creative new era of what we’re calling either wireless or digital slamming.

AT&T is working with a number of wireless content providers to deliver that “broad spectrum of in-demand services” we all keep hearing about, and perhaps it is inevitable that you’d run across some bad apples in any bunch, but what the carrier is dealing with in at least one instance is ridiculous. AT&T tells me it is currently tracking an armada of customer complaints that “Keep getting a little lower every week.” The source of the pain: A content provider that abused its access to AT&T’s SDP and/or customer databases to try to rack up quick profits by “signing up” for perpetual auto-renewing subscriptions customers who had never authorized any such transactions and had no communications with said content provider. The company in question has been signing up subscribers at $10/month for a variety of “fun games,” but the biggest game of all appears to have been this company’s effort to game the system and take money from unsuspecting AT&T customers.

Solutions? While the prospect of unlocking new revenue opportunities by connecting a virtually unlimited array of content providers with their customers may be exciting for communications carriers, they probably need to more closely guard access to their SDPs. Maybe the FCC, ITU and other telecommunications regulators and industry groups need to adopt an aggressive new code of conduct banning slamming, backed by national governments revoking a few of these companies’ right to operate in their countries. Or consumers and businesses may simply need to go at their carriers tooth and nail whenever they detect this kind of fraud to be sure a certain type of organic matter rolls down the proverbial hill, in this case to the deserving party.

Not sure of the best solution, but I can make at least one Prediction with certainty: If content providers abuse their unprecedented access to the millions of subscriber accounts at the world’s wireless service providers by trying to deceive unsuspecting customers into paying for services they do not want or need, they will indeed “kill the golden airwave” that could hold the key to legitimate, and legitimately-obtained, riches. If this sort of thing continues it will lead to a new wave of regulation along the lines of what one still experiences when switching carriers in the U.S. in 2008: Double verification, recorded phone calls and other deliberative process requirements guaranteed to cool or kill the ardor of many customers for new services. It could even take the form of opt-out-as-default whereby customers go on record as refusing any added services and must go through several verified signature steps to reverse it.

Someone somewhere is probably going to look up their Aesop’s Fables and wonder whether we are “crying wolf.” Not true, but it’s good to get that one out of the way and we welcome ideas about creatively using SDPs and other aspects of the B/OSS mix to reach customers with services they want and have agreed to pay for. The problem is real and it would probably be a good idea if the majority of us who operate honestly in the marketplace show the abusers their goose is cooked before they kill the golden airwaves for us all.

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