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Innovation

Why don't our cell phones have call timers, better Bluetooth? Here's why

Why don't all of our cellular phones show us the elapsed time of our phone conversations during our conversations? Or why don't these same phones utitlize Bluetooth for more than just voice connections between headsets and handset?
Written by Russell Shaw, Contributor on

Why don't all of our cellular phones show us the elapsed time of our phone conversations during our conversations?

Or why don't these same phones utitlize Bluetooth for more than just voice connections between headsets and handset?

It's all because the carriers don't want that to happen.

That's the assertion of Tim Wu, a telecommunications law professor at Columbia University and author of the recent paper, Wireless Net Neutrality.

Just this Sunday, Prof. Wu was interviewed by Brooks Gladstone, co-host of NPR's On The Media radio show. Here's the link to the broadcast

"There’s often cases where a phone is technologically capable of doing quite a bit, but carriers, because of their business model, a fear of losing revenue or potential fear of losing control, won’t let the feature be on the telephone and will force the equipment manufacturers not to allow the telephone to do something," Prof. Wu said. "That’s crippling."

Here's some more of the interview: 

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you give us a couple of examples in your paper. I have to say, when I was reading through it, I got angrier and angrier, so let’s go through a couple.

The first, call timers on telephones--what are they, are why don’t we have them?

PROFESSOR WU: Well, you know, some of the device manufacturers think it would be handy to have something that keeps track of how much time you’ve used per month, you know, per day. You can monitor your own usage.

Phone carriers have acted to prevent consumers from having their own records of how long they’ve been speaking on their telephones.

It’s a little bit like, you know, when you’re in a casino in Las Vegas, they don’t really want you to know how long you’ve been there, and so there’s been a lot of crippling, or disabling, of phone timers for the full capabilities they could have.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why don’t they want us to know?

PROFESSOR WU: Well, there’s I guess the possibility you could generate an independent record of your billing, and you could compare that with he bill you’re sent, and you could say that, you know, I actually didn’t talk this much on my phone, and you know, why would a carrier want that?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s why I got so angry. And you also talked about access to WiFi and web browsers and GPS and Bluetooth technology.

PROFESSOR WU: Ah! Bluetooth was promised to make it easy for phones to communicate with other things, computers, printers. It’s really hard, believe it or not, just to get your cell phone to talk to your computer, for something as simple as just backing up your address book, so if you lose your phone, you’ve got a backup.

Under a lot of carriers’ constructions today, Bluetooth is almost completely crippled. You can’t send music back and forth. It’s very hard to send photos from your phone to your, all, again, because there’s a fear of losing control and there’s a fear of crippling some potential business model that revolves around charging you to do something with your phone.

Now to be fair, Brooks gives equal time to the industry argument that if mobile customers are demanding enough, they can spark a demand curve that will make some of this functionality happen. That's the assertion of Chris Guttman McCabe, vice-president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, The Wireless Association.

Let's, uh, "listen in:"

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why can’t we have call timers?

CHRIS GUTTMAN McCABE: You know, if that is something that’s wanted, then that will happen. Carriers didn’t have cameras in their phones two or three years ago. Now almost every single phone has it.

So you know, our carriers absolutely listen to the customers. They do surveys. They reach out. And the reason they do is because it’s in their best interest to serve their customers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Customers want call timers, and despite the confusion among the various cost plans, they would be able to use their call timers to compare their usage with their bills. The carriers don’t want them on the phones, and so the manufacturers don’t provide them.

CHRIS GUTTMAN McCABE: And I would argue that, as I said, that in a competitive environment, if something is wanted by consumers, someone will provide it, either a niche service provider or one of the large providers.

T- Mobile’s service offerings are different than Verizon’s, which are different than Cingular’s, which are different that, you know, Sprint Nextel’s and Alltel’s. And each of them try to identify where consumer wants and requests and needs are, and they try to fill it.

And if they’re not, the consumer will move. They’ll leave, and they’ll go to another carrier.

 Oh, sure Chris. 

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