Mobile data: The good, the bad and the insult

We know that mobile operators are running scared of full IP connectivity. It's worse when they pretend that they're not

The customer is always right. To that time-honoured retail maxim should now be added: "Because they have a blog". We are no longer in a time where poor customer service and a lack of respect got no further comeback than some grumbles in the pub and the occasional letter to the chief executive. Now, bloody-minded arrogance and patronising dismissal can circulate around the world faster than even the most well-written press release. All companies recognise this, especially those that specialise in communication and technology — or so one would hope.

So how can one explain Vodafone? In a classic example of hypocritical cant, the company has explained its removal of VoIP components from the Nokia N95 smartphone thus: "There is a misleading perception that VoIP services are 'free'. This is, however, not the case when it comes to using VoIP over mobile where customers will need to use data connectivity to establish a service and may incur further charges. Vodafone feels responsible that customers should not incur unnecessary charges when competitive mobile rates are a cost-effective choice for customers."

To say it is hard to square this with the mobile phone industry's real attitude to "unnecessary charges" is like saying it's hard to believe Herod's promise of subsidised creche facilities. When seen in the history of data charges in general, and data roaming in particular, this sort of statement is beyond rude — it is actively insulting.

It is thus easy to sympathise with Truphone, which has complained that Vodafone has abused its position by disabling VoIP from some phones and by not setting up connectivity to Truphone's number range. Vodafone has disclaimed any guilt, but there is no doubt that the major limiting factor in the deployment of new mobile IP-based services is neither technology nor user-readiness. The operators should be the sails of the ship: they are in danger of becoming the weeds on the hull.

There may be sound commercial reasons why they distrust and delay new ideas: yet if so, the pain will be all the greater when change can no longer be ignored. There may be good marketing reasons why some operators feel compelled to treat their customers like infantile idiots: yet if so, the day when the alternatives are too good to resist will be sooner rather than later.

We will get the mobile service we want, which will include unfettered IP access and our own decisions about what software to use, whether the current generation of operators want to do it or whether we'll have to go elsewhere. It's time for them to stop pretending otherwise.


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