Last week, the New York Times ran this story about Sprint telling OpenMarket to tell Mobile Commons to tell Catholic Relief Services to stop their “text to call” Haiti relief program. PK promptly filed a letter with the FCC saying that, if Sprint wants to manage its text message program like a game of telephone, the FCC should classify it as a Title II service.
Hah, hah, just kidding. Seriously, we told the FCC that according to the various layers of middle men Sprint requires non-profits using short codes to go through, Sprint told CRS to stop its program as constructed (text-to-call, rather than the standard text-to-donate) or risk termination of the short code (that is, it wouldn't work on Sprint's system) by March 29. As noted in the NYT article, this information was based on email correspondence between Jed Alpert, who runs Mobile Commons, and OpenMarket, one of the “aggregators” approved by Sprint to act as middleman between folks wanting to use short codes on Sprint's system and Sprint.
Friday, Sprint filed a letter with the FCC saying that this was so totally not true, that Sprint had no plans to stop use of the short code, and they would respond in greater detail to our “misrepresentations” presently. For my part, I will observe that our understanding of the situation was shared by everyone else in the food chain, including Catholic Relief Services and the NYT, which notified Sprint of the issue a full week before the article appeared and invited Sprint to explain things to them. Despite this rather explicit notification by a NYT reporter that folks downstream were under the impression that Sprint had (in the words of its approved aggregator, OpenMarket) “officially rejected” Catholic Relief Service's text-to-call program and that they therefore had until March 29 to discontinue the program or have Sprint terminate use of the code on their system.
Let me be clear. I don't think Sprint has anything against Catholic Relief Services. To the contrary, I am sure that any non-profit trying to innovate with short codes would receive the same treatment. That is rather the point. No one has to go through levels of intermediaries to get an 800 number. We don't expect Verizon or AT&T to somehow certify the business models of companies using 800 numbers. That's because under Title II, carriers are utterly forbidden from applying to telephone numbers the sort of overly complex and utterly arbitrary “screening” processes the current regulatory limbo gives carriers freedom to impose on short codes.
Sprint has chosen to blame its current embarrassment on us. But no one forced Sprint to set up this ridiculous Byzantine process with two layers of intermediaries between themselves and Catholic Relief Services while simultaneously insisting on knowing and approving every detail of what CRS wants to do with the short code. At the moment, the most charitable interpretation of events (if you will pardon the pun) is that Sprint suffered a massive failure of its own processes and had it “known” — at some higher level in its organization than whoever routinely screens program applications — that this was Catholic Relief Services doing Haiti relief, they would have behaved differently.
For those who follow such issues, this should have a familiar ring. It is strikingly similar to what happened with Verizon and NARAL — except that Verizon had the grace to admit fault with NARAL and pledge to change its policies rather than run around blaming everyone else for its own internal screw up.
And, as with NARAL, we think the point is broader. Texting is a communications service, like voice. Consumers deserve the same level of protection, and providers should be held to the same level of accountability, as they have been in the provision of voice service for more than 75 years. These ideas are neither outworn or old fashioned, nor somehow magically altered because text messaging uses a different technology than voice. We will continue to point out every time the unrestrained actions of wireless carriers, by accident or design, interfere with the rights of users as set forth in Sections 201 and 202. And, should the FCC decide this is not a Title II service, we will walk across town to the Federal Trade Commission and see if someone in this town still cares about protecting consumers under the rule of law.