After a fairly tame morning at the Westminster eForum seminar, things just livened up as Charles Arthur, technology editor at The Guardian, took to the podium, and spent five minutes berating mobile operators and handset makers for not putting the customer first. He criticised handset makers for treating the mobile networks, rather than consumers, as their customers, contrasting that approach with that of Apple, who, he noted, design phones for the people who use them.
He laid into operators for the price they charge for text message, or for calls made when out of the home network, noting the sizeable profits announced recently by Telefonica, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom.
He then noted (after O2 CEO Ronan Dunne had called for a simple 4G auction process to avoid the UK falling further behind some of its European counterparts) that “mobile networks arguing amongst themselves” is what delayed the 4G auction in the UK in the first instance.
During the Q&A, since no-one else had picked up on it, I asked the operators on the panel to respond to Arthur’s criticisms. O2’s Dunne took up the cause, saying:
“We fundamentally put our customers first. We have invested £11bn in the UK in the last 10 years, and for our average customer, we make less than £30 per year for the services we provide. There is a value exchange, and on balance, the industry does a bloody good job on value exchange.”
Following up on a previous question about content providers paying for the distribution of their content on mobile networks, I also asked if the profit figures that Arthur had quoted in his presentation did not make a mockery of the idea of charging content providers to distribute their content, or would the idea be that if YouTube (for example), was paying to distribute its videos, the network’s customers would not pay, or would pay less. To which Dunne replied: “If you look at the large content providers, Microsoft has in excess of $200bn on the balance sheet, and network operators have $200bn of debt on the balance sheet because of the investments we make in infrastructure.”
At this, Arthur pointed out that Microsoft, Google and Apple are not content providers per se, but he accepted Dunne’s point that they are responsible for the flow of large volumes of content on the web.
A useful morning then, made a lot more interesting by Arthur’s intervention.