Lowenstein's View: 10 'Uncarrier' offerings I'd like to see… What are yours?

Mark Lowenstein

T-Mobile cleverly coined the term "uncarrier" to market its maverick moves, changing the game in several aspects of mobile services over the past eighteen months. As the market becomes more competitive, and as the delta between the traditional levers of price, network, device, and value-added services continues to narrow, it is an interesting exercise to consider other "outside the box" moves that wireless operators might initiate.

So, here's my contribution of ten 'uncarrier' moves I'd like to see from mobile operators, realizing that some have already addressed some of these. (I would love to hear your ideas--post them in the comments section, below): 

1.         Auto-Rightsizing. For subscribers who don't know what the optimal plan for them is, or whose usage varies widely from month-to-month, how about a plan that auto-adjusts, within a given consumption range? For example, if a subscriber or a family has purchased a base level plan, say 2GB, the pricing adjusts based on the usage in a given month. Use a little less, and the price goes down. Use more, and the charge goes to the next level "bucket", or a reasonable per GB charge. The subscriber or main account holder can also set a top limit on price or GB used.

2.         Unlimited Should Mean Unlimited. Too many operators and MVNOs market their service as "unlimited", but then, in the fine print, indicate that UNL includes only a certain amount of 4G data, after which the speed is downgraded to 3G, or worse. This is misleading marketing, in my view. And, let me add that "throttling" is the least consumer friendly term ever used by the wireless industry. Let's take away the asterisk from 'Unlimited,' especially as the LTE footprint expands.

3.         Data SLAs for Consumers. Network capabilities will continue to be a critical competitive differentiator. But the industry is ready to move beyond marketing verbiage such as "best" or "fastest" network. How about an operator guarantees a reasonable and achievable threshold for data--say, 3 MB average download speed--and if the average for that month dips below a certain level, the customer receives some sort of credit or other compensation.

4.         Get Rid of Activation Fees. Netflix doesn't charge a fee do activate/de-activate its service. Amazon doesn't charge an activation fee for a new Kindle device. So why do most of the wireless operators? I realize that activation fees are a nice little profit engine, but getting rid of them would be a customer-friendly move.

5.         Cheaper, Flat Rate International Calling – Without a Separate Plan. In order to access the best rates for outbound international calling, most operators require subscribers to spend $5 or $10 a month for an international "plan" of some sort. This is inconsistent with unlimited domestic voice, good VoIP apps, and cheap international rates from landline phones. Operators should be able to offer international calling rates of less than $0.10 per minute to just about anywhere, without a separate plan, and still make a profit.

6.         Reasonable International Voice Roaming Rates. Along the same lines of the point above, it is amazing that in 2014, subscribers still have to pay upwards of $1.00 per minute to make a phone call when traveling outside their home market. Workarounds such as Wi-Fi, OTT apps, local SIM, and so on are a pain or involve a compromise of some sort. Nobody should have to pay more than $0.20 per minute, to call from anywhere, to anywhere, on earth where there is cellular coverage. (T-Mobile does offer $0.20 international roaming from anywhere to anywhere in 127 countries.)

7.         Transparency on Wholesale and Roaming Rates. One of the reasons why the FCC and DOJ are so wary of approving further consolidation is that they are concerned that operators will charge usurious rates to resellers or for roaming (see T-Mobile vs. AT&T case). Regulators in some countries have played a more active role in creating a more competitive wholesale market for mobile and broadband services, resulting in more vigorous competition. This is unlikely to happen here. However, if we had some confidence that there would be a reasonable and viable wholesale market, with some level of predictability and transparency in pricing, there wouldn't be as much concern around market concentration of facilities-based providers.

8.         Nix the "Per Device" Approach for Service Pricing. Most service plans today are a mix of a per-device access charge and then a data "bucket". This structure still discourages users from cellular-enabling additional devices, such as tablets, or requires them to resort to the inconvenient and battery-draining "tethering" approach. The emerging IoT market will be quicker to accelerate if consumers, enterprises, or households have the ability to simply buy a package of GB, and be able to more freely and inexpensively attach some reasonable number of devices to that plan.

9.         Differentiated Customer Service. Apple Care, and Amazon's Mayday service are examples of two brands that have been able to effectively use customer service as an additional monetization opportunity or product differentiator. Wireless operators employ more customer service reps, collectively than just about any other industry. They are an underleveraged resource. Here's an idea: as a way of differentiating a particular premium Android device, how about a hot button to a specially trained rep? There could be some interesting partnership opportunities here between operators and OEMs, especially for signature devices.     

10.      Instead of "Wi-Fi First", How About 'Wi-Fi Friendly' Plans? As long there are usage-based cellular plans, Wi-Fi will be an important tool for consumers to manage their spending. There are Wi-Fi First MVNOs such as Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless. The cable companies are rumored to be working on a Wi-Fi centric mobile offering.  But the Wi-Fi First idea doesn't necessarily have to be something that "competes" with cellular. Wireless operators could offer a 'Wi-Fi Friendly' type service themselves, to price-sensitive users. The infrastructure to be able to offer a nearly complete "telco" like experience over Wi-Fi is getting there, enabled by companies such as Bandwidth, Scratch, Kineto, Mavenir, and others. If wireless operators don't do something here, Facebook (via What's App), Google, Microsoft, or some other big brand will.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem.  Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein. What are some of your 'uncarrier' ideas? Post your thoughts in the comments section below, or email Mark at [email protected].