Why Randall Stross and the New York Times Don’t Get Wireless

Here’s the beginning of a post I just published on BusinessWeek’s Tech Beat blog:

This Sunday, New York Times business columnist Randall Stross devoted his column to dissing the U.S wireless industry for doubling the cost of text messages to consumers to 20 cents from 10 cents. But what really got Stross lathered was his claim that the cost of transmitting text messages is far less than the public supposedly assumes.

Stross backed up his argument by quoting Srinivasan Keshav, a computer science professor at the University of Waterloo, who said that “it doesn’t cost the carrier much more to transmit a hundred million messages than a million.” Stross also noted that 20 class action lawsuits have been filed around the the country against AT&T and other carriers, alleging price-fixing for text messaging services.

Stross is not only flat out wrong, but his argument is overly simplistic and suggests that he doesn’t really understand the economics or business model of the wireless industry.

Let me explain.

First off, it costs more to send more text messages–contrary to what Stross and Keshav claim. Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint declined to speak with Stross. But James Gerace, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, told me in an email that the company “had to invest an additional $200 million in the network just to accommodate the ’08 volume in text messaging.” That is not chump change.

“This op-ed is bunk,” wrote Gerace, adding that he sees the Times story as an example of “trial lawyers placing it looking for a new revenue stream.”

Second, Stross totally discounts the price of wireless spectrum, which is really, really expensive. In the most recent spectrum auction, wireless carriers and other technology companies paid an astounding $19.6 billion to acquire the nation’s most desirable remaining airwaves. Yes, Stross mentions that the “carriers pay dearly for the rights to use” spectrum. But in the next breadth he writes off the cost by noting that text messages are “free riders” that piggyback on the control channel of the wireless network.

This gets me to my last point. Stross doesn’t seem to grasp the current economics of the wireless biz. Here’s the deal. The voice side of the business is becoming increasingly commoditized. So the future success of the industry hinges on the ability of carriers to grow the revenue they get from data services such as text messaging, wireless web surfing and wireless applications.

That’s the fundamental reason why carriers have doubled the price of text messages from 10 cents to 20 cents over the last few years. I have no idea if the carriers engaged in price fixing. If they did, they should be punished. But there is a legitimate economic reason why they have raised prices for individual text messages.

Click here to read the rest of the post.

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One Response to “Why Randall Stross and the New York Times Don’t Get Wireless”

  1. John Taylor Says:

    Hi Spencer,

    On Sprint’s behalf, I actually spoke with Randy twice for his column and emailed him 5 times — all before his holiday week deadline. We also OK’ed Sen. Kohl’s staff releasing our letter to him. The reason we did so is we’ve done nothing wrong and we have nothing to hide.

    Randy asked me ten questions, all of which were seeking proprietary and competitive information that any business in an industry as competitive as wireless would decline to answer. That said, I did provide him with a statement with new information which added to the information we had shared with Sen. Kohl. He declined to quote our letter to Sen. Kohl or our statement.

    The bottom line is, we offer our customers many choices at various price plans. In addition, our prices are lower than that of our two largest competitors.

    Unfortunately, Randy’s column left the impression with his readers that our company has done something wrong and we have something to hide. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Thanks for your blog post and for continuing this discussion. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the supervising editor at the Times has declined to turn on the comments section for the online version of Randy’s column, although I am not sure she’s had the chance to read my request that she do so. To his credit, Randy asked 3 editors to review his column and the Times is unwilling to issue any corrections to it.

    While Randy is an engaging columnist with an interesting point of view, we think he was wrong on this one.

    Regards,

    John Taylor / john.b.taylor@sprint.com
    Public Affairs
    Sprint Nextel Corp.

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