T-Mobile/Twitter and Mobile Net Neutrality

Over the weekend there was an incident that points out, oh so clearly, why we need net neutrality on the web and on the mobile networks. It started last Wednesday when T-Mobile USA customers started getting errors when posting to Twitter. Initial indications were that T-Mobile was blocking Twitter traffic. There was an uproar on the blogoshere and on at least one popular forum and now the issue seems resolved.

Twitter announced late yesterday that SMS from T-Mobile users to Twitter’s 40404 short code is working again. In a diplomatic post Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, blamed the 4 day outage on technical problems. This is a turnaround from Friday when Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone reported on Satisfaction that:

“T-Mobile has definitely turned us off without notification. At Twitter we make great effort to be in compliance with all the carrier “playbooks.” We’re still trying to find out why T-Mobile has taken this action—as soon as we find out, we’ll let you know”

The outage was first reported by bloggers including Bibleboy and Alternageek. Bibleboy contacted T-Mobile and received the following rather consumer unfriendly email from an executive Customer Relations Specialist at the carrier’s Office of the President:

“…Twitter is not an authorized third-party service provider, and therefore you are not able to utilize service from this provider any longer….

T-Mobile is not in violation of any agreement by not providing service to Twitter. T-Mobile regrets any inconvenience, however please note that if you remain under contract and choose to cancel service, you will be responsible for the $200 early termination fee that would be assessed to the account at cancellation.”

Which certainly implies that the blockage was deliberate. Assuming the email is legitimate that’s terrible way to deal with a customer. It starts out sounding like a canned response given to anyone who complains about any 3rd party service. But the part out the ETF is just so negative and uncalled for. I’ve been forced to attend a few day-long training sessions on dealing with customers and always heard that when saying “No” to a customer you are supposed to offer sympathy and alternatives, not threats. The story was picked up by Mashable and Satisfaction, a five month old forum offering “people-powered customer service” where it quickly gathered a ton of comments.

Whether the blockage was deliberate or not, it was undoubtedly a PR nightmare for T-Mobile. It didn’t help when a Los Angeles firefighter posted his concerns on Satisfaction, mentioning that his agency uses Twitter as a communications tool. Though not good for T-Mobile, but the incident seems to have given startup Satisfaction a nice little buzz boost.

I’m inclined to give T-Mobile the benefit of the doubt on this as blocking Twitter hurts not only their image but also the bottom line. Just look at T-Mobile’s SMS rates, you either pay 15 cents for each message sent and received or add a monthly text bundle to your account. There are 3 bundles; 400 messages for 4.95, 1000 for 9.95 or unlimited messages for 14.95/month.

The incremental cost of transporting 160 bytes on a packet switched network is infinitesimally small. There are obviously expenses associated with billing and interconnection with other carriers but the existence of the 1000 messages for 9.95 rate suggests that the break even point for T-Mobile is well under a penny per message. Twitter pays too, shortcodes cost about $1000/month plus around 5 cents per message sent or received. I’m not sure what portion of that goes to the carrier but I’d be surprised if none of it did.

This is not the first time carriers have blocked SMS to or from certain services. Verizon recently blocked messages from an abortion rights group on the grounds that they were “controversial”. The block was lifted after negative publicity, with Verizon claiming it was all a mistake. T-Mobile, Verizon and Alltel are still blocking users from sending texts to the US shortcode of Rebtel, a Swedish company which has a service where you text an international number you wish to call to them and Rebtel calls the number and then calls you back with your party on the line. Rebtel’s rates are a tiny fraction of what the carriers charge for international calls. In both these cases, as with Twitter, these were not unsolicited messages, users had to initiate the dialog.

These incidents point up the need for the same sort of service standards for text as there for voice calls. In the US it’s generally illegal for a carrier to block calls to arbitrary numbers. There is no such regulation on text messages as the laws were written long before mobile networks came into existence. Carriers have been using that loophole to block SMS to competitors and anyone else they feel like. Texting has become a major communication tool and users reasonably expect that messages will be delivered regardless of sender or recipient. Arbitrary interference with SMS traffic by carriers raises clear freedom of speech issues and should make it obvious why we need network neutrality not just for the internet but for mobile networks too.

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