The global mobile industry needs a reality check

Mobile phone services in Canada are lagging behind the rest of the world but mobile spam is flourishing. Instead of new government rules and regulations against mobile spam, why can't legitimate marketers and handset makers work together?
Written by Jay Seaton Airwide Solutions, Contributor
There’s no doubt proposed government legislation can drive conversation, stir debate, and foster change on issues of importance.

The mobile messaging industry is no exception: Canadian Legislators are proposing anti-spam legislation for mobile phones, amid other legislation. Unlike much of the developed world, Canada holds the title for being the third most expensive country in the industrialized world for mobile phone services. In fact, Canadian cell phone subscribers pay on average $500.63 per year, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

While the U.S. and other regions are seeing dramatic increases in mobile spam, Canada in particular is recognized for its trouble with mobile spam and lagging wireless competition. The Canadian government has acknowledged that rates are too high and are contributing to decreased mobile phone adoption and usage. It is no coincidence that with the high costs per subscriber, described in the prior paragraph, Canada now ranks last for cell phone users per capita in the OECD.

But with the proposed anti-spam Canadian legislation on the table, which is attempting to make up ground via the Electronic Commerce Protection Act (ECPA), operators, handset makers, and mobile marketers need to stop and realize that opportunity knocks. Before being legislated into a corner or falling further behind, operators, legitimate marketers, and handset makers should work together to outline what can be proactively done to prevent further erosion of the mobile system. That is, of course, easier said than done. But if operators and handset makers want to get usage rates up, a proactive approach is absolutely necessary.

While operators and handset makers want consumers to believe that mobile phones have more value than simply being a utility, there is responsibility that also comes with that. Protecting consumers from mobile spam, viruses, and other threats, as well as ensuring a reliable means of communication should be paramount.

How much responsibility lies with the handset maker vs. the operator?
On the surface, the operator bears the brunt of the problem and associated costs. If a subscriber experiences spam or other malicious traffic, they typically would not blame their device, but would blame their operator. If the subscriber takes action, it would typically be in the form of calling the operator’s customer service staff, which is a direct cost to the operator; or they would demand a credit if the malicious traffic resulted in fraud or other unwanted costs – this credit is an additional direct cost to the operator. Ultimately, the subscriber may be unhappy enough to churn to a different provider, which would cost the operator future revenues. And a cynical perspective may be that in regions with operator-specific (locked) devices, that subscriber may be likely to purchase a similar device (from the same handset manufacturer) when they move to a different provider.

However, the real answer lies in employing a variety of security solutions and shared responsibility between the operator and the handset manufacturer. An important component of this means that mobile operators must deploy mobile security solutions on a network level. A mobile network solution is controllable and easily upgraded. If a virus spreads via mobile phone it is through the network that it is proliferated. Without such a solution it is nearly impossible to prevent it from spreading. Currently many network operators voluntarily police potential fraudsters but as messaging services continue to grow and become more complex, networks need a comprehensive range of features, such as anti-spam and virus filtering software, EIR (Equipment Identity Register) systems and blacklisting, anti-spoofing, and anti-flooding capabilities.

Certainly additional protection at the handset level would help, and increasingly handset makers, especially those producing very powerful and expensive devices, are aware that some of the responsibility will lie with them. A recent example is the iPhone patch issued by Apple for the SMS security hole uncovered at the recent Black Hat Security Conference. However, patches are… patchy. They are difficult to deploy universally and most subscribers don’t wish to have another device that they are required to track, upgrade, and repair on an ongoing basis.

More than ever, there must be a collaborative effort for effective mobile security protection. However, using a variety of mobile security technologies, including antispam and antispoof, and next-generation gateways, operators are in the best position to detect abnormal patterns in messaging traffic, confirm legitimate senders, filter content, and block suspicious messages. Filtering content also helps the fight against the spread of viruses and trojans. Blacklisting permits users to block certain phone numbers and incoming messages coming from these phones while EIR systems have proved to be a very useful tool in handset fraud prevention.

Mobile spam on the rise
While mobile usage continues to increase so, too, does the onslaught of mobile spam. Some of the greatest challenges and changes we have seen with respect to the needs, wants, and habits of consumers using text messaging have been dealing with mobile spam. Maintaining the quality of service and protecting it from interference via spam is becoming increasingly more difficult, as spammers become more sophisticated.

The good news is that technology to protect against mobile spam is also becoming more sophisticated and highly-developed. For example, capabilities are now emerging that will allow subscribers to be able to select a message once it hits their handsets and select “delete” or “report as spam” via an application that sits on a smartcard. Mobile handset users will also be encouraged to report malicious messages or spam, and that by doing so, they are fortifying the network’s security. Operators, handset makers, mobile marketers, and consumers all play a part in being able to thwart mobile threats.

Government regulation, while necessary, should be the “least common dominator” and provide only the most basic regulation necessary. Standards beyond that should be developed and set by operators, handset makers, and mobile marketers. Taking responsibility for better service and standards is not only necessary but essential to the development and advancement of the mobile industry. Subscribers should also feel empowered to contribute to building a secure mobile network and should report any spam or mobile threats they receive.

Jay Seaton is currently chief marketing officer for Airwide Solutions. He has extensive experience in all aspects of global marketing, including corporate and product marketing, as well as channel development, product management and business development. His experience spans software, services, networking, telecom and application development segments.

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