Roaming: mobile execs show how to destroy industry cred

by Guy J Kewney | posted on 29 April 2008

I don't know a single senior executive in the mobile industry who, over a pint of beer, won't admit that the charges for texting, roaming and especially, texts while roaming, are absurd.

OK, they'll start out repeating the official line, and there was a documentary - "Dispatches: The Mobile Phone Rip-Off" - on television in the UK last night which showed several examples of the usual excuses.

The report had flaws, sure. Any bit of journalism is going to have flaws! - but the bit that will have stuck in the mind of most viewers, will be those clips where reporter Antony Barnett approached the top names in the UK's network operators, and tried to ask quite reasonable questions.

They hid from him like paedophiles going into Court. They couldn't have said: "We have been caught with our hands in the till" any more clearly.

If the industry gets nothing more out of this than a lesson in public relations, that would be a tragedy, of course.

The PR lessons are a given: what we learned was, indeed, that the bosses of Vodafone, T-Mobile, O2 and Orange could give courses in "how not to deal with awkward questions" or "how to convince viewers you're up to something evil" - but behind the PR, is a reality.

The reality is that Government still thinks of the mobile industry as a goose which might lay another 3G "windfall" egg, of pure gold. And in an effort to stuff more corn down that goose's throat, Ministers were shown lobbying the European Community on behalf of over-charging networks.

Make all the excuses you like. I'm ashamed to see people rallying around our industry with comments on the programme - comments like:

"If the government didn't make a lot of money from the mobile phone industry then what situation would the country be in financially. If they don't get money from this, they will get it else where. Its like complaining that international calls are too expensive - ok the mobile networks will lower them and look for an alternative way to make money from us. That's life!"
- they are just excuses, excuses. The dealers who scam customers with cash-back may, indeed, be a problem where some network operators are trying to put their houses in order, but the industry is still trying to justify its original "nothing to do with us, Guv!" stance. The other scandals were, equally, greeted with bluster (or coyness) rather than argument.

But ignoring the problem betrays a lack of concern about ethics. Maybe, if we ignore problems, troublesome reporters won't get the quotes they want! - but the effect on the viewer is simply:

"These people are ashamed of what they are doing."

If they aren't they should be. The price of texting - compared with the cost per bit of sending data from the Hubble Space Telescope - is ridiculously high. The BBC has reported on Commissioner Viviane Reding's plans to cap text charges; almost nobody else has mentioned this story.

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