Tuesday, July 7, 2009

WSJ Editorial on Wireless Handset Exclusivity

The Wall Street Journal has extended its record for knee jerk corporate boosterism and extreme snarkiness, this time rejecting any need to scrutinize the wireless industry. See
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124692981354203419.html. The Journal waxes poetic about the competitiveness and innovativeness of the industry, but surprisingly reports in its editorial that the top four wireless carriers in the U.S. control 87.4% of the market.

Down here at the consumer level, we know that the Big Four mimic each other in prices, terms, conditions, and even in their advertisements. As the wireless market reaches maturity, the carriers still pitch how reliable their service has become and the niftiness of their exclusive handsets.

Innovative? The Big Four—and for that matter the entire industry, except for resellers-- apply a single business model that ties wireless service with subsidized wireless handset sales. Consumers may think they are getting a great deal, but in reality they pay more for the handset through higher monthly rates than if they simply had bought the handset without the subsidy. No carrier offers lower rates for new or existing subscribers who use unsubsidized handsets. The handset tie-in reduces churn and guarantees the subsidy pay back and more thanks to the two year service lock in.

What I do not understand is why consumers do not push back more strongly. On the front page of the Journal was an article about how a teenage has hacked the iPhone 3GS to accept unauthorized software. So some consumers can resort to self help. For everyone else, the allure of 30,000—count ‘em—software applications appears plenty. But if I asked most personal computer users if they would tolerate Dell or Comcast specifying the type and number of applications consumers could download, I think the response would be different. Smartphones have become handheld personal computers. Users of wireless handsets should have the same freedom to access software and services, limited only by a “harm to the network” and technical compatibility standard.

Currently, wireless manufacturers, such as Nokia, only have two major sales outlets: 1) the wireless carriers, which sell 60+% of all handsets; and 2) Big Box stores such as Best Buy and Walmart, which sell about 25% of all handsets. Think of the incentives to innovate and diversify if consumers could buy wireless devices through the many different channels available for wirebased devices. When the FCC forty years ago decoupled wireline services from handsets, a substantial boost in innovation and consumer choice arose.

4 comments:

chris said...

The pigopoly continues - but thank the heavens you don't have Calling Party Pays extreme termination rate distortion as we do in the Uk, where the mobiles hold the entire industry to ransom!

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