U.S. Cellular's strategic BREW plan: improving discoverability

A commitment to quality and customer service may sound cliché, but regional operator U.S. Cellular has crafted its entire mobile business around these concepts, from the significant networks investments it makes to paying careful attention to the customer-oriented people it hires to the BREW data applications it serves up to its customers.

Considered a super-regional operator, Chicago-based U.S. Cellular supports more than 6 million customers in 26 states primarily in the Midwest, New England and Pacific Northwest. In a market characterized by rapid innovation and delivery in the wireless data application realm, U.S. Cellular is surprisingly slow to the punch, and that's okay with its executives.

"Our focus is not on speed, but experience," said Joe Settimi, director of product strategy and development with U.S. Cellular, a company that took some 15 months to evaluate BREW back in 2002. "We are much more selective about the content applications we put on our deck. It may frustrate developers, but our customers love it. There is a level of trust built up, and we don't want to destroy that."

According to Settimi, this slower approach has resulted is some BREW-based services and applications that have had a significant impact on uptake of the operator's easyedge data services. Last year, U.S. Cellular worked with Napster, Qualcomm and Motorola to implement Napster to Go service, putting significant emphasis on application usability. That meant that users needed to have an out-of-box user experience with mobile music.

"Historically in wireless, music is an afterthought," Settimi said. "You get home and realize you have to buy all of these extra things. We made sure to package them all together. That drove the customer experience, and Napster raved about how many of our customers used the applications."

U.S. Cellular also worked with developer Asurion to tailor a popular application called My Contacts Backup, which is offered to customers for free. The application automatically protects contact information stored in a user's mobile phone and enables them to transfer the information to a new handset or remotely erase them if the phone is lost or stolen. The tool combines a downloadable handset application with a Web-based contact management portal to provide automatic or manual contact backup options. When customers replace their devices, they need only login to the application and it automatically restores the contact list to the new phone.

When it comes to ringtones, U.S. Cellular consolidated all of its ringtone application providers onto one Web site called Tone Room. From there, customers can preview and send ringtones directly to their handsets using BREW-directed SMS to wake up the application on the phone and deliver the ringtone. Users can also purchase ringtones directly from their phones.

For sure, BREW services have seen tremendous growth on U.S. Cellular's network, although the company declines to give any statistics regarding BREW-related growth and ARPU due to competitive reasons. In 2007 alone, data revenues increased 69.1 percent, to $367.6 million.

"BREW services have seen fantastic growth as more customers become aware and see the value these applications provide," Settimi said. "We have also seen tremendous growth across all data products, including text, pics and SMS."

While ringtones, games and wall paper represent the largest growth areas in BREW for U.S. Cellular, the popularity of Web browsing has increased significantly within the last eight months, despite the fact that the operator has offered a Web browser since 2003. Settimi attributes the phenomenon to the introduction of Apple's iPhone.

"A lot of carriers in the past have not advertised around a product, and the iPhone was advertised around a product. People got to see a close-up of the screen and the browser working. Those things have helped drive awareness," Settimi said.

Now that every U.S. Cellular device has BREW included on it and the operator has tapped deeper into its subscriber base with easyedge services, the next goal is to improve discoverability of content to increase usage even more.

"We have certainly been trying to make some concerted efforts around discoverability during the last six months," Settimi said. "Carriers have had limited the adoption by launching services with poor usability. We know he or she may never try applications again if they have a bad experience."

The operator is improving discoverability multiple ways. One method includes preloading applications on devices. When a customer opens the box and activates the phone, an application is readily available on the home screen, helping to drive awareness of BREW applications.

Enabling mobile search across devices is another significant way to drive data usage, Settimi said. No matter how well organized an application catalogue is, end users still find it difficult to find the application they desire. Mobile search only requires a customer to click on a search application and type in the type of content or application they are looking for, whether it's typing in the word "email" or "Cold Play" to obtain music from that band.

U.S. Cellular is also tying applications to the Web interface where applicable. That means if a customer enters the operator's mShop on-device shopping portal, for instance, and clicks on "games" then appropriate advertising banners would display more popular games that would take the customer directly to the advertised game without having to wade through the deck.

U.S. Cellular executives will be presenting many of these ideas at this week's BREW 2008 conference during a session titled: "Leveraging the BREW Platform: Examples from U.S. Cellular" on Thursday, May 29, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.