Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Can Google Fix The Wireless Industry?

The U.S. wireless industry, often held up as a paragon of innovation, is morphing into just another classic American duopoly in which customers endure all kinds of psychic and economic abuse with gusto, in pursuit of the next great smartphone.

Remember the concept of "consumer sovereignty?"  Competition is everywhere, and atomistic firms get price signals from markets in which consumers vote with their dollars, driving innovation and product development.  Not any more.

When I was an equity analyst, my firms signed a corporate agreement where we could buy the earliest brick-like ATT cell phones, which could stand on their base and which had a long, rubberized antenna.  Eventually, I got to experience a Blackberry, again through a corporate relationship, and the "always on" capability together with my own obsessive-compulsive behavior led me to withdrawal and to Robert Frost's poetic junction.

I am not, by any means, a technology Luddite.  However, I want to exert my sovereignty and own a non-smartphone, simply to make calls and to send texts.  It has always worked for me, and the siren song of the smartphone does not call out to me.  After owning Nokia phones for a while, I have owned two very fine Samsung phones, including my current model.

It works like a charm, and its menus are simple and intuitive.  It also has a lot of very nice features which the carriers are having them remove from the newer phones.  For example, I can block crank or robocallers by using a very simple option in a menu.  I couldn't find a similar feature on any phones for my daughter when she was looking for a T-Mobile upgrade.  When I showed the feature to the salesman, he seemed astounded.  Now, my daughter could get the same functionality if we could pay a monthly fee of $2.95, and the calls would be blocked through the T-Mobile network only.  

For those of you crying out "EBay," please don't.  I have had my fill of dealing with folks who have all the stars in the world for recommendations, but who are not directly accessible when they fail to perform on a deal.  EBay takes no responsibility either.  I'd like to simply buy the unlocked phone of my choice, from a wide palette, through my retailer of choice.  If I have to deal with a return, I want to know who I'm dealing with.  This isn't possible in our brave new world.  

T-Mobile basically forces upgrades or unlocked phone purchases to be smartphones.  However, smartphones on their network must have a minimal data plan.  I don't want any data plan, and since I am the ultimate minimally resource-intensive customer paying gold-plated freight, I should be able to have my choice.  I can't.  I've been with all the carriers, with the exception of Sprint, and they're all equally lousy.  

Now, I read about Google's Nexus 4, which seems to be an unlocked phone with lots of nice features that seems to operate on GSM networks like that of T-Mobile, but without a data plan.  That sounds like it could be an interesting choice. I think the phone is too expensive for what I want, but it's still cheaper and potentially better than the overpriced phones T-Mobile offers.  

Google's model, according to Jeff Jarvis, is both open and partnering and disruptive.  He talks about Google taking aim at the cable companies.  Bravo!  A friend in the IT business told me that Google has a broadband experiment in Kansas City where they are offering customers the fastest broadband and online storage for a fraction of what the cable companies charge.  Go for it, Larry and Sergey!  

I do have concerns about what Google is doing: I am not an acolyte. However, if their targets involve monopolists and anti-competitive neanderthals like the wireless companies, then hopefully consumers may regain their sovereignty against the odds. 

No comments: