The Unregulated Texting Market

Text-messageComcast recently started texting me about my cable bill. And like most things they do they didn’t quite get it right. They sent me three texts telling me I was being billed and when they sent me a second text telling me I had paid I discontinued the texting service. Since my bill is identical month to month and I always pay my bill on time, I thought getting five texts was annoying.

I would contrast this to the texting service that I have had with AT&T wireless for many years. They send me a text when my bill is ready to review and they notify me a second time when they have billed against my credit card. I think in the dozen years I have used them that they have only sent me a few other texts, such as asking me to rate customer service after I visited their store. I am sure that if I didn’t pay my bill on time that AT&T would text me more to prompt me to pay. But overall I am satisfied with the AT&T texting service. It’s not intrusive and it keeps me adequately informed.

Comcast is a bit late to this game and many other carriers and other types of companies already use texting to connect to customers. When I moved to Florida I found that a lot of businesses here use text messages. For example, I bought some furniture from Haverty’s who texted me throughout the delivery process. They let me know when my furniture was delivered to their warehouse, and they texted me several times to coordinate delivery. Using texts they were able to pin down the time of my delivery to about an hour. I think a lot of people would be happy if Comcast technicians could do the same thing.

So texting can be a great tool when used correctly. A lot of people don’t want to talk to customer service reps and a two-way texting service provides a great alternative. With AT&T I can do such things as make queries about my bill and I don’t have to call or be at a computer.

But there is a darker side to texting because the large wireless carriers control the market very tightly. SMS texting as we know it got introduced in cellphones in the late 90s. But, like the Internet, texting is not covered by Title II regulation and so there are very few FCC rules that apply to text. The FCC has a few rules, such as mandating that texting can’t interfere with voice calling, but otherwise the product is largely controlled by the big carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

Since Comcast is not a wireless carrier they must buy texts wholesale from one of these large wireless carriers. Interestingly, those carriers are quite strict about how texting is used. For example, they limit the number of times per month that texting can be used to send a sales message to a given customer. I assume that the carriers are careful about this because they don’t want a lot of customer complaints at the FCC, which might result in becoming regulated by Title II.

The big carriers have a good reason to be cautious, because they make a fortune on texting. It costs almost nothing to send a text, as in a very tiny fraction of a penny (with many zeros before the first digit). The bandwidth used for a text message is tiny, and the date path being used has to be there any way since it is a control channel for some of the functions of cellular calls. The texts they have been selling for years for ten cents has to be the most obscenely profitable product in the world.

But the carriers often go further than just limiting the number of texts. For instance, in the past there are instances where the big carriers have blocked texts. One well-known case was when Verizon blocked text messages coming from Naral Pro-Choice America. Verizon thought the content of the texts was too controversial and graphic and blocked the group from texting. In an unregulated world Verizon is free to establish any rules they want for the texting service they sell, and so they are free to block Naral. But I find it disturbing when Verizon gets in the censorship business while using spectrum they got from the government.

This is a good example of what might happen to the Internet without any net neutrality rules. In the texting world the carriers have become judge, jury and executioner and they control texting with an iron fist. One can imagine over time that the major ISPs could do the same thing to the Internet.

Regulation by the carriers has a positive side. Verizon is actually more likely than the FCC to quickly slap Comcast’s wrist if they get carried away with the number of texts they send to a given customer. But do we really want a large company like Verizon deciding what can and cannot be done in the texting world?

Texting is directly analogous to the regulation of the Internet. Today we have no net neutrality rules since the last set are in limbo. The Internet is being controlled right now by the large carriers. I think the only thing stopping the carriers from making deals for Internet fast lanes or even worse things is that they are afraid the FCC will use that as an excuse to implement Title II regulation. But if the day comes when the carriers stop worrying about that threat, then we only have to look at the texting market to see what carrier regulation looks like. It’s not particular pretty.

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