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.

At Least I’m Not Verizon

In this attached news article it has been reported that Verizon’s new tech blog Sugarstring does not allow any content related to net neutrality or Internet spying. This topic was not worth a whole blog, but as someone who writes a daily industry blog I couldn’t let it pass unmentioned. So I guess this is a second supplemental blog for today.

There are a wide range of viewpoints and sources of information on the web. But this article points out that when you choose a major corporation as a news source that whatever you read there is going to be filtered through their corporate point of view. I’m not even sure that you can call what Verizon is doing censorship. I look at it more like they are producing a blog that is passed through a public relations filter. They are entitled to do that, but readers of that blog ought to always remember their bias.

The publisher of the Verizon blog admits that he is not allowed to touch these two specific topics, and you know in the future there will be other topics. But what he doesn’t say is that his blog is certainly never going to be critical of Verizon.

There is a lot to like about Verizon and AT&T and Comcast and every big telecom company. And when praise is due I don’t hesitate to praise them. But a lot of the problems we have with broadband in the country falls directly onto these same companies, almost by definition. and so you have seen me criticize them often in my blogs.

I don’t hold myself out as any special beacon of truth, but what this blog and other independent blogs try to do is to look fairly at the hundreds of issues facing our industry. I can’t say that I look at issue without bias because I know that my own bias is a strong attitude that our country ought to do better with broadband We can afford to do it right. So you often hear my frustration when I see large companies or the FCC acting in ways that create barriers to broadband.

But one thing I will never do is to shy away from any specific topic. You may not always agree with what I write about, but I have enough daily followers to know that I must be giving people something to think about – and that is my only real goal with this blog. I try to shine the light on topics that my audience of small carriers find of interest.


More Trouble for Google and the Internet

120310censorshipI find myself feeling a bit sorry for Google, and that is not easy to do. One tends to think of them as a very powerful corporation. But as powerful as they might be in some ways, they just got another absurd court ruling that has to have them scratching their heads.

I wrote about another absurd court ruling over a month ago when a Spanish court ordered Google to let people expunge embarrassing things from the Internet. The facts behind that ruling was that a man was embarrassed that he had been listed years ago in a newspaper as delinquent on the tax payments on his home. It was never disputed that he hadn’t paid his taxes on time. But the court still ruled that he has the right to ask Google to expunge the embarrassing material from the web.

Now comes a judge in Canada who is ordering Google to take more content off the Internet. The facts this time center around Equustek Solutions that claims that a rival company stole their technology for an Ethernet gateway and is illegally profiting from their intellectual property. The courts agreed it is theft, but rather than go after the normal commercial solutions the judge turned to Google and told them to remove all ads by the competition from the web.

Google offered to remove all references from which is where most Canadians use Google. But the Supreme Court of British Columbia said that was not good enough and ordered Google to remove the references world-wide. At first glance one might say that this is good justice. Assuming that the court is right and that the intellectual property was stolen this provides justice of a sort for Equustek Solutions. But once you think more about it, this is an absurd ruling for a whole lot of different reasons.

First, there are already mechanisms in place to deal with international theft of goods and ideas. Countries have treaties, trade agreements and diplomats to deal with this kind of theft – something that happens all of the time. These mechanisms may not always work the best, but they are how the world as a whole deals with these things. It’s very questionable if any one court anywhere has the jurisdiction to override trade treaties agreed to by their own government and other governments

Further, Google is not the only web source for the stolen gateways and there are other ways for people to continue to find the illegal devices. People who shop at a favorite supply house are still going to find them. People using other search engines like Bing are still going to find them. People who shop at Amazon are likely to still find them

This may not sound like a bad precedent, but it allows a court in one country to order Google, or any web company to remove content that they find offensive. I don’t think there will be many people defending the right of a company to sell stolen patented devices. But little legal precedents grow into big rights.

This ruling could quickly get escalated once other judges hear about it. The judge in Canada said that the ruling was based in part on what had happened in Spain. But what’s next? What if a court in Iran asks Google to remove references to all books by Salman Rushdie from the web since he is an infidel? What if a court in some conservative American state asks Google to remove all content related to abortion and birth control? What if the Syrian government asks to remove any news about their fight with other factions in the country?

At the end of the day this ruling condones censorship, plain and simple. It puts Google into the huge bind of agreeing to be the world’s censor. I am sure that Google is appealing this to higher courts in Canada, but in the meantime do they comply with the order? A part of me hopes that they simply ignore the order and ignore any fines associated with the order. This is a rogue ruling by a rogue court and in the end will probably be struck down within Canada.

But the much bigger issue is what Google is going to do when they are confronted with a bigger moral dilemma? What do they do with one of the absurd orders that comes out of the Supreme Court of a major country and can’t be appealed? Does Google comply and censor the whole world or do they pull out of the country making the request? In both cases the world loses and the Internet gets diminished.

I guess it was inevitable that this had to happen. The Spanish ruling was pure insanity. They guy didn’t pay his taxes on time and all Google did was to scan a database from a newspaper that reported it. The newspaper had the right to publish this and so Google had the right to scan it. Facts are facts and we are starting down a slippery slope when we start picking and choosing which facts are allowed on the Internet. We already know where censorship leads – look at China where hordes of people ride herd every day on what the Chinese people are allowed to read or say on the web. Let’s please not let that system get foisted onto the rest of us.