Under The Radar: Carriers In The Hot Seat

(For MMW’s complete coverage of Under The Radar: Mobility, click here.)

Wow. When Under The Radar claimed a “fireside chat” with representatives from major U.S. cellular carriers would have “no filters,” they weren’t fibbing.

I got the honor of starting things off, by asking Verizon Wireless’ Jennifer Byrne (far left in the photo) about the three-cent hike that Verizon might leverage on outgoing text messages–a blow to aggregators and message marketers who felt they helped make SMS popular in the first place, only to be penalized. “Clearly that was a confidential draft… not a final decision. (But) it was an important event because it forced everyone to evaluate the evolution of messaging,” Byrne said, adding that the company is “finalizing” decisions as to any kind of fee increase regarding SMS. “We’ll have a plan to show our aggregator partners soon.” How soon? She declined to say.

“Clearly SMS pricing is changing,” added Rupert Young from AT&T (pictured at the far right). “Clearly pricing is a convoluted structure–pricing is going to change.” Aggregator-only charges notwithstanding, some in the audience worried about SMS charges being hiked for consumers eventually. But panelists said they’re looking at increasing messaging revenues in other ways, such as premium SMS.

Despite the possibility of SMS volumes making the technology less-profitable for carriers, texting still remains part of the carriers’ monetization hopes–in which marketers will continue to play a big role. As Jeff Giard from Alltel (second from the left) said, one of Alltel’s goals is “focusing on mobile advertising.” He added, “You’ll see carriers being more open to business model invasion–and not just tacking (a charge) onto the customer’s bill.”

Emotions ran high a little later, though, with the question of “protecting the consumer” vs. “stifling innovation.” Some asked why carriers are unhelpful to businesses that want to develop, say, a new SMS portal or a new mobile app that might require more power. Young noted that AT&T, at least, wants to protect consumers from things that might frustrate them. However, an impassioned member of the audience exclaimed, “Maybe I think that an app that uses up my battery is worth it. It’s not up to you!”

I have to say that the panelists’ excitement was refreshing regarding marketing technologies that skeptics doubt–such as the long-touted “location-based services.”

“I think it’s an outstanding opportunity,” said T-Mobile’s Puneet Tandon (second from right in photo). “Some companies are doing things like researching historical search patterns…It’s something you have to take a look at.” He added, “This is a huge area for us–the question is, what besides navigation is next?” Others noted that the important thing is to explain to customers how LBS can help them, rather than tout the technology itself. After all, hype about a locating network that can pinpoint your position within a few feet is kinda creepy.

I came away from the carrier panel thinking, sure, these guys have a few things up their sleeves that they aren’t going to disclose because it might disturb a few observers. At the same time, cellular providers really do want to leverage nifty technology that ultimately helps consumers. The answer is to promote more dialogue between all players–marketers, developers, content providers, and carriers.