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Big Data Could Become Big Business for Telcos

Mobile operators are getting into the business of aggregating and selling customer data to advertisers. Is there a way to scale, or are they trying to harness the ocean?

Your mobile operator knows a lot about you. It knows which cell towers you connect to and when, so it knows where you are generally, and can guess where you live and work.

Your operator knows which websites you go to on all your mobile devices. For example, an operator could potentially see if you went to the Best Buy website on Monday, and then connected to a cell tower near a Best Buy store on Tuesday. It might conclude that you were doing research online before you made an electronics purchase.

The point is: mobile operators have access to an enormous amount of data. Right now, they’re not putting it to much use. But that won’t last much longer.

Telefónica, the multi-national mobile operator, launched Dynamic Insights late last year, a project to aggregate data to make it anonymous, and then sell it to advertisers. A video on its web site says the group offers information about “actual consumer behaviour instead of perceived behaviour.” Project Oscar, a joint venture between O2, Vodafone and EE (Everything Everywhere, itself at partnership between Orange and T-Mobile) in the UK, launched Weve late last year. It also aims to take an aggregated approach to users and data.

This is a whole new revenue stream for operators, and in the UK at least, seems to be of a higher priority than mobile payments. It does seem to be something operators are willing to cooperate for—unlike NFC payments.

Before we get concerned about privacy violations and a dystopian future of Big Brother selling us Soylent Green, let’s consider the sheer volume of data we’re talking about. We are talking really big data here. Think about all of the billions of people in the world with mobiles, and the fact that more of us get them every day. Consider the number of text messages we send—in aggregate. (Last year, it was nearly eight trillion.) Or the number of cell towers each of us goes through each day. Every couple of minutes, there’s a new location record for every phone in the world. Add to that calls, browsing, etc., and that is big, big data. It’s unfathomable.

Realistically, is there a way to scale this much data, at an individual customer level? All the announced services are looking at aggregated data, so they won’t be keeping or sharing information at a personal level.

Could this big data create a new business model for mobile operators? No longer selling minutes, but rather providing consumer insight. Only time will tell, but this could be the start of the whole new world.

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