Thursday, November 10, 2011

Carrier Monopoly Power Run Amok

The madness continues.  Cellular carriers, through their association (CTIA) have subcontracted their "audit" process to a company that knows little - and cares less - about the impact that their threat of shutdown of a text messaging service does to a business like yours.

It has now gotten to the point where these auditors are demanding that companies like TextPower fix typos on other people's web sites that are not our customers, don't have anything to do with us and just happen to mention our short code number on their web page.

We couldn't make this stuff up.  That's what they're saying.  Picture this - you're Joe, the owner of Joe's Restaurant.  Someone you've never heard of, don't know and can't reach mentions in a tweet or an email, "I heard Joe's Restaurant offers coupons for free coffee - just text "freecoffee" to 12345". The auditors then call YOU, Joe, and tell you that YOU have to have that free coffee offer removed from Twitter, the email deleted, the mention removed from Facebook or whatever.  If you don't, your restaurant gets closed down.

That's the equivalent of what's happening right now in the text messaging business.  Really.  These auditors insist that YOU get stuff removed from OTHER PEOPLE'S web sites, Twitter streams, email accounts, etc.  This is completely, totally, incredibly, insanely NUTS.

But that, unbelievably, is exactly what the CTIA audit process is doing.  And the threat that they carry - the complete and total shutdown of your (or our) business - is unreasonable, illegal and terrifying.

TextPower goes to extraordinary lengths to insure that you - and, by extension we - are compliant with the carriers' sometimes-unreasonable demands.  But even though we exert enormous efforts to avoid audits they do occasionally arrive.  In order to help you decipher the process, the impact and determine how to avoid the ramifications of an audit and possible shutdown, it helps to understand the following:

    1. What is an audit and why does it concern me?
      Audits are performed ostensibly to verify that a text messaging service is complying with the myriad rules and regulations that the carriers impose on service providers like TextPower and anyone that uses our service.  We are diligent and suffer far fewer audits than most other companies of our kind but can't avoid them all. When auditors look for "violations" of the carrier compliance requirements they troll web sites, printed media, bus benches, brochures, banner ads and anything else that they can think of where a message containing a short code (e.g., "Text TPI to 81888 for more info") is posted.  Once they see an offending mention, the series of threats, thinly veiled in "You must comply" emails, begins. 
    2. What are the auditors looking for?
      There are specific requirements that carriers impose on text messaging advertising (or any mention of signing up for a text messaging service of any type).  Companies offering a service to receive coupons, weather updates, news flashes, weekly promos, etc., have to put specific verbiage in every place that the short code (that's the abbreviated phone number that text messaging companies use to route the messages) appears in every one of those places saying:

      "Msg&data chgs may aply. Max x msgs/week."

      On web sites.  On bus advertising. On billboards. On a sign someone carries in the street in front of your store.  Everywhere.  No exceptions.  No kidding.

      Plus, that same wording needs to be in the text message you first receive from a company when you do sign up for their service.  In an environment where you only get 160 characters to begin with, that's a burden in and of itself.  But to have to put it everywhere, all the time, and - even worse - for us to insure that people who are using your service put it on every web page and printed advertisement - is virtually impossible. 

      Imagine if the same thing applied to a regular phone number and the phone companies could force you to add similar verbiage to every place that your phone number appeared. 

      On the awning over the entrance to your business it could say "Mary's Flower Shop - 800.555.1212 (you may be charge for this phone call. If you call from a cell phone the toll-free number doesn't matter as it will still come off your minutes. Note that the phone company can't be responsible for flowers dying after a week without water or sunlight.)"

      Revolutions have started over less.
    3. What can happen if I don't comply with all of these requirements?
      In short, the carriers can - and eventually will - shut off your access to their network.  If you're on a shared short code your violation could affect thousands of other users.  In other words, bad things can happen that can cost you and others incredibly amounts of time and money and you may not even know that you've violated these requirements.
    4. How can the carriers get away with this?
      We ask ourselves the same question every day.  These audits are arbitrary, capricious, interrupting to business and in some cases, downright dangerous.  TextPower, for example, has many customers that depend on messaging for life-and-death situations involving weather alerts, power outages, security notifications, etc. 
    5. What can I do?
      You can try to follow the carriers very strict and constantly-changing compliance requirements.  Or, you can take another, far simpler approach.  Wherever you post an opt-in to your messaging service (e.g., "Text 'pizza' to 12345 for coupons and discounts!") simply link to our pre-formatted "snippets" to insure that you are compliant.  This way you don't even have to think about it.  Just link to the proper spot on our system and we do the rest. 
As with a lot of other things in life… it's complicated.  But we're here to help.  You can always get support through the form on our web site or via email (Support at textpower dot com).

It's incredible - and sad - that we actually have to even discuss this with our clients and prospects, but it's true.  It's monopoly power run amok.