Bandwidth, Bills, and Bags

This week I participated in the MobileBeat conference in San Francisco. For the panel I was on, I wanted to find a way to sum up the role of the mobile operator in the application ecosystem.

As I’ve often said, there’s lots of ways that carriers (in their Big Bell Dogma ways) try to force themselves into (or onto) the ecosystem that just plain don’t make sense. As I said at this conference a year ago, application developers want to move at Silicon Valley speed, not carrier speed.

That doesn’t mean that mobile operators are relegated to just being dumb pipes.

Instead, we need to understand where we do, uniquely, create value for the ecosystem. To me, it boils down to Bandwidth, Bills, and Bags.

For starters, we really are network companies. We operate billions of dollars worth of network assets that enable stuff (voice signals, web pages, mobile ads for “free” games) to get from the right point A to the right point B. Clearly, it’s more than just Bandwidth, but for the benefit of alliteration (so at least I can remember it), I’ll use that word to represent this vast array of assets. Carriers can

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contribute significant value-creation potential into the ecosystem by exposing those assets to developers to enable tremendous innovation (location, QoS, call control, performance data, etc.).

But, we aren’t just network companies. Mobile operators have long term relationships with our customers. I’ve chosen the image of the cellphone Bill to represent a complex set of interactions that provide the carrier with perhaps the most complete view of the customer that anyone has. On one hand, those bills can be a valuable way for developers to monetize their efforts, but even more, the information that the mobile operator holds about each customer is a veritable treasure chest. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of this treasure entrusted to us (consciously or not) by our customers. On one hand, we must defend the privacy of customer data “to the death.” On the other hand, as good stewards, we must enable the maximum value creation on behalf of our customers. We must enable developers to create capabilities that our customers can choose to approve the use of their data to make applications work better (e.g. location-based search) or even enable applications that simply aren’t possible otherwise (e.g. social location services).

Finally, we not only operate networks and maintain relationships with customers, but we also are some of the largest retailers in each of our territories. We operate thousands of stores where customers can walk in and interact with us. Historically, these stores were primarily sales locations. Increasingly, especially with increasingly complex products, these stores have become service locations. And in the past couple of years Sprint has introduced “ReadyNow” services to help customers fully use those increasingly complex products. While not yet on the order of Apple’s Genius Bar, ReadyNow is a valuable way that Sprint helps customers use their smartphones to do more than just talk.

I think my message was well received by the audience. What do you think? Does Bandwidth, Bills, and Bags communicate how mobile operators (like Sprint) are more than just dumb pipes, but rather value-contributing partners in the mobile ecosystem?

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