Monday, September 22, 2008

The Platform Is A Mess

Of course, the idea of having the mobile phone operators become our bank accounts for tiny transactions that add up sometimes really seems like a bad idea. Like when you hear that somebody is on Sprint, the operator that lost hundreds of thousands, if not a million, of customers in 2006 and 2007. The fact that in many horror stories, many of them available on like, Sprint seems like a billing basket case, doesn't make me think I ever want them as the keepers of my money. It just sounds like their computers never recovered from trying to incorporate Nextel. All operators screw up, but with some you just hear the same story of the same kinds of billing snafus over and over.

Or that famous time when all Verizon customer reps seemed confused about payment per kB by two orders of magnitude. And lets be clear, as the about quarterly human-interest story about somebody getting killed by data charges shows, operators are not at all interested in helping you actually manage your bill. For years now we have had to read about people getting a bill of about their yearly mortgage payments put together because they downloaded too much without noticing. Now if it was a foreign trip this is almost understandable, as I am sure the networks do not bill that to each other real-time but probably do final accounting every month, but you can still get into this kind of trouble with domestic data if you just lose track of whether your limit was 3Mb or 5Mb, and who knows when they have browsed that anyway? You try going to any operator and saying "Hey, you should warn me when I use more than ten bucks a day of data. Send me a text message or something". If any of them in the USA or UK will, this would be news to me.

In fact, I know first hand of a story of a person who had a SIM card from a respected brand MVNO in the UK (an MVNO is an operator that doesn't have its own network but leases time on another network but does its own billing) that specializes in calls to foreign countries. Pay As You Go, so you can't go wrong, right? Just put exactly the amount you want to spend on the account and you can't overspend. One day the call can't be completed, and checking the account online shows that it is over £300 in the red. How can a PAYG account be negative? By that much? The person suspects the phone was doing a data transfer, like checking email or browsing, while the person was unaware the MVNO SIM card was in the phone and not their regular one, and yes, that MVNO had atrocious data rates. But a PAYG account that lets you spend £300 over the account limit? No, that's not the billing system you want managing the mircocredit system.

Maybe we all got lucky the mobile phone operators never caught on what power they could have had by being the brokers of mini-finances on the web and mobile web. Apple and Microsoft should happily take over that role and run with it. So far their records of dealing with these billing issues is far far better.