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HeyWire Accuses Operators of Censorship

Mobile messaging cloud service provider HeyWire is levying some pretty harsh accusations against the big four US carriers, not least that they are censoring freedom of speech, limiting innovation and even violating network neutrality.

It started back in April when one day the four-and-a-half-year-old company's over-the-top business messaging service suddenly -- and without warning -- stopped working for all Verizon Wireless customers. It wasn't a glitch. It just turned out Verizon wanted to form a new, more expensive agreement with HeyWire Business, and blocking its service was how it decided to tell them.

If that sounds familiar, it's because that's the model approach that Israeli startup Shine Technologies is suggesting carriers take with mobile advertisers -- block their ads to force them to strike a business deal. But, as Meredith Flynn-Ripley, HeyWire Business CEO, explains it, this is a lot worse. (See Operators Should Block Ads to Get Their Cut, Startup Says .)

For one thing, HeyWire was already paying Verizon for use of its network. But she is less upset about the rate increase -- HeyWire is a big enough company to pay it and reinstate service -- and more upset about the precedent that she says Verizon has included in its new terms, as have AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), T-Mobile US Inc. and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), all of which followed Verizon's lead and changed their terms within the past year. The carriers now say that they can block service from interconnected over-the-top (iOTT) providers, those that use real phone numbers to provide text service via an app, at any time, to any business or consumer, or even unilaterally block the service across the board.

"We're very concerned because all these new rules puts the wireless carriers in a position of censorship and authority to determine who can message with whom," Flynn-Ripley tells Light Reading. "These actions go beyond the scope of fast and slow lane of net neutrality and limit freedom of speech and are unwarranted censorship."


For more on mobile issues, head over to our dedicated mobile content channel here on Light Reading.


The operators told HeyWire they were trying to prevent spam on their networks. When we contacted them, none of the big four would directly address the issue with HeyWire, but all but Sprint provided general statements related to iOTT. A Verizon spokeswoman said the carrier has a long track record of ensuring its customers can use the messaging services they want, including those from OTT providers.

The spokeswoman told us: "In order to do so, while still protecting our customers from spam and unwanted charges, we helped develop and have always adhered to all industry guidelines and have clear policies and processes about how these services can be enabled on the our network."

AT&T stressed that the carrier supports SMS and MMS from iOTT providers, but works through an industry vendor that enables the interconnection of messaging traffic. A spokesman said, "We are not blocking SMS or MMS traffic from OTT providers who have an agreement with our vendor."

And T-Mobile said, "T-Mobile does not charge Over-the-Top (OTT) providers for these messages. T-Mobile pays our messaging interoperability gateway partners for enabling this traffic. They do not pay us."

HeyWire says the aggregators passed increased fees on to them and insists its network actually has less spam than any of the operators. The company provides text-to-1-800 number capabilities that it says a million consumers and businesses use to text each other regardless of the end device. It, and other iOTT providers like it and Twilio Inc. (NYSE: TWLO), which also says it was blocked by the operators, terminate upwards of 30 billion SMS messages annually on the major operators' networks.

The new carrier rules limit the ubiquity of SMS, says HeyWire CTO Gene Lew. Wireless operators have watched as OTT messaging services have eclipsed SMS usage in recent years. SMS ubiquity was the operators' main advantage over OTTs, but it becomes a little less attractive when those outside of fellow wireless operators are blocked from interoperating -- which, Lew and Flynn-Ripley add, costs operators nothing to support.  (See $38.3M: Ain't That a Kik in the SMS and Operators Can't Kik the OTT Habit.)

"The industry is built on interoperability and the growth has happened because anyone can message anyone," Flynn-Ripley says. "These rules fly in the face of [the principle that] anyone with a phone capable of texting should be able to message anyone. They're isolating innovative companies."

The rules also potentially fly in the face of the net neutrality principles that are being worked out in the US now, requiring all Internet traffic to be treated equally. The  Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could decide operators' blocking of OTT services is illegal but if not, this could simply become the new way operators do business -- stifling any communications that doesn't come from within their walled garden. (See WebRTC & the Rise of the WebCo, Obama Backs Net Neutrality, Stuns Industry and Net Neutrality Even Mark Cuban Could Love.)

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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johnlauer 12/11/2014 | 12:52:52 PM
Re: Updates from AT&T & T-Mobile Hi Sarah,

The business deal being referred to would most likely be a company connecting into the inter-carrier SMS system via Syniverse or SAP, which could be characterized as having a contract with the operators. Under that connectiivity you were not allowed to text enable toll free numbers, but a few providers were doing it without permission. So if you're doing something without permission and that catches up to you, is it fair to characterize it as the carriers blocking you? Or should you have never done it in the first place? Or better, should you have sought out permission first?

Additionally, the carriers were trying to make it so you can officially activate toll free numbers. This article makes the carrier sound like they're doing something negative when in fact the goal was to solve the problem by making texting on toll free a new full-fledged member of the SMS ecosystem. That change should be applauded. Today, any provider can now freely activate toll free numbers for texting.

On your bigger concern about the ability to block a service at any time, this has always existed because of the concern for spam or illegal traffic. Any provider or carrier at any time can choose to block traffic if they are concerned about the nature of the traffic. If you choose to inter-operate with SMS, you accept this on your shoulders as a business.

With regards to the T-Mobile comment, that is a comment regarding landline numbers which are viewed as a different set of numbers in the SMS ecosystem. Toll free numbers are considered a commercial-grade service with high velocity features. Landline numbers are used by OTT providers and are managed a bit differently and thus contracts are different, if not inverted, thus your comment on it being complex.

Hope that helps shed more light on how complex the SMS ecosystem is, but how positive things are happening to open it up and allow innovation.

-John
mendyk 12/11/2014 | 6:22:01 AM
Missing something What does a mobile texting service have to do with the Internet and net neutrality?
sarahthomas1011 12/11/2014 | 3:21:00 AM
Re: Updates from AT&T & T-Mobile Hi John,

Thank you for weighing in here. There seems to be a disconnect between what HeyWire and you/the operators are saying. HeyWire says it's had business deals in place with the operators to provide this kind of service for the past 3 years; their service was just all the sudden turned off in April. I think the bigger concern is the ability to block that service at any time, which is a provision in the new rules.

Although, T-Mobile says they pay for these services rather than vice versa, so there's clearly some complex relationships going on. 

Thanks again, John!

Sarah
johnlauer 12/11/2014 | 1:54:43 AM
Re: Updates from AT&T & T-Mobile I feel compelled to post a response to this article to help shed some light on this topic. I am the CEO of Zipwhip and on March 6th of this year, Verizon turned on their texting on toll free service and chose Zipwhip as their texting aggregator. You can visit http://developer.verizon.com/content/vdc/en/verizon-platforms/verizon-short-code-messaging-overview/verizon-short-code-messaging-short-code-contacts.html to see their list of aggregators. This event is what I believe is being referred to in this article.

In 2014 the majority of wireless operators embraced texting on toll free numbers and Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular contracted Zipwhip as the aggregator of this traffic. CTIA (the wireless industry association) even formed a working group to help create a set of guidelines. This is a major milestone in the texting industry because prior to this launch toll free numbers were not necessarily allowed to be activated for texting service, even though some providers were doing it without the knowledge of the wireless operators. There are 48 million toll free numbers in the U.S. Leaving them out of the texting ecosystem was a legitimate problem that needed to get solved.

The launch of texting on toll free numbers in 2014 brought the following benefits to all businesses and consumers in the U.S.:

1) Offer high velocity texting to support call centers who may send millions of messages per month, i.e. 1-800-FLOWERS can now take orders via text.
2) Full support for delivery receipts (yes, the call center operator can see the text was 100% delivered to your phone)
3) Full MMS (multi-media messaging) support
4) Immediate activation of your toll free number (after verification of ownership), i.e. no 8 to 12 week approval process like short codes
5) Spam controls to prevent abuse of the high throughput available on toll free texting
6) Built in STOP keyword that any consumer can text back to automatically block texts from a particular toll free number for consumer protection

There is a fee being charged for this commercial-grade service, but the fees are minimal. They're necessary in order to support an enterprise class service while also ensuring spam does not enter the market and to maintain a healthy ecosystem including verifications, routing, and compliance.

I live in the texting industry every day and there are very exciting innovative things happening. Indeed it is going to usher in a new era of innovative texting services that all consumers will benefit from.

 
nasimson 12/9/2014 | 11:12:54 PM
Re: Updates from AT&T & T-Mobile It seems that AT&T and TMobile are hiding behind aggregators and vendors. Whether the service providers blocked heywire themselves or through their partners, its still the same.
nasimson 12/9/2014 | 8:34:25 AM
from net neutrality to SMS neutrality It seems that net neutrality is a far away from the current oligopolistic business practices and rent seeking attitude of telecoms. Even SMS traffic is manipulated, what to speak of net neutrality. The regulator has to step in here.
Joe Stanganelli 12/8/2014 | 3:27:26 AM
Re: What do you think? Whether it's "smart business" or not matters little if EVERYONE does it in such a dominated industry as telecom.  The oligarchs decide.
Joe Stanganelli 12/8/2014 | 3:26:23 AM
Blah Blah Net Neutrality Blah Blah Blah This sort of thing really highlights the importance of net neutrality reform.

Of course, certainly I can understand carriers wanting to limit their liabilities and costs -- but certainly there must be some better business model for this.
bosco_pcs 12/5/2014 | 3:07:29 PM
Re: What do you think? You'd think Vonage's near death experience is part of B school's cirriculum. Or, the Amazon marketplace's small merchants for that matter. Today business is no different from the fierdom of medieval times unless you have leverage 
kq4ym 12/5/2014 | 10:38:42 AM
Re: Updates from AT&T & T-Mobile Sounds like another dispute that only the lawyers can benefit from. Changing the rules, changing agreements, and the resulting chaos to smaller company's business plans is becoming common place. How this "censorship" charge will ultimately end will be interesting to see.
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