Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The 411 on mobile


The 411 on mobile

7/5/2004 5:00:00 PM - Privacy is just one hang-up around the proposed cell phone directory

by Shane Schick

There are several turns of phrase associated with telephone communications so hackneyed and cliched they might have been coined in the 1950s, but only until recently do they seem as though they should have remained there.

"I'll be waiting by the phone," which we no longer do since the phone
is usually hanging around us, is one of them. "It's your dime," which was appropriate until payphones cost much more than that, is another. Best known, perhaps, is the one we might have used when we run into an acquaintance who wants to catch up with us later: "I'm in the book." Only now there is no book for many wireless users, and there is a real debate over whether anybody should publish one.

About two months ago the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) in the United States promised a cellular directory service by the end of this year. This would not be a print publication, of course, which would be more obsolete than the wireline phone books we use today, but a 411-style lookup that could potentially bring new revenues to the embattled telecom market. Several carriers immediately came on board but Verizon, a notable exception, abstained. The U.S. Congress reacted in knee-jerk fashion with legislation to protect the privacy of consumers, including provisions that would ensure they aren't punished for keeping their number private. (This is a legitimate concern: the first complaint under Canada's privacy law came from a B.C. man who wanted to keep his number out of the Telus phone book without paying anything).

To the best of my knowledge, no consumer advocacy group has called for a directory service, though occasionally tracking people down does become a problem. Just a few weeks ago, for example, we experienced an emergency situation that required us to get in touch with an executive in the field, but the two cell phone numbers that were provided to me by coworkers were out of service. I thought I could look it up in one of our electronic databases, but in the end the right number was in a pen-and-paper rolodex. For the most part, though, cell phone users have proven themselves surprisingly capable of updating those closest to them with the most current numbers to use, proving once again that knowledge management only works when users are personally interested in sharing data for their own mutual benefit.

The permission-based nature of the proposed CTIA directory means it will be even more incomplete -- and as such, less valuable -- than the wireline phone books, because to a great extent we only look up phone numbers of people we are contacting for the first time. These relative strangers are the users most reluctant to give up their privacy, but we may in fact see a substantial listing provided users are given the right incentives. There might be a discount, for example, or promotional offer associated with including a phone number when users register for a specific plan. There will also, naturally, be "secret" cell phone books among vendors who collect this data in the course of regular customer relationship management activities.

Cell phones, of course, remain personal devices but are often used as business tools, and the Web capabilities offered through vendors like Microsoft, Nokia and Sun are turning them into feature-rich clients that will be increasingly connected to enterprise networks. The potential "audience" provided by a directory service would therefore be two-fold: a way to reach both everyday consumers and potentially business users. It's not hard to imagine how the electronic nature of a wireless 411 could create additional revenue opportunities for companies like Google, who could assist with number searches in exchange for advertising, or the various spyware firms that are trying to get closer to mobile users.

As might be expected, Canadian regulators like the CRTC have been silent on the idea of a wireless directory, but unless carriers can prove the demand, government might not need to get involved. There has been so much abuse, manipulation and tomfoolery with wireline contact data that mobile users will be tough to win over. They won't want to be in anyone's cell phone book until the communications industry is back in their good books.

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