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Who is Calling My Cell Phone?

Tue, 05/15/2007 - 9:15am
Rob Fisher

Have you noticed a little something missing from your wireless phone? That's right, you see only digits when someone calls your cell phone unless it's a friend you've already programmed into your contacts. This display of digits is technically "Caller ID," but really, what kind of identification is a phone number you've never seen before? Even the Rain Man, the memorizer of phone books, would be stumped as to who's calling.

Landlines, by contrast, offer Enhanced Caller ID, which shows you the name of the person calling along with the number. A name. Yes, that's meaningful identification. Now, you've got a much better idea of whether you should take the call.

So why do our landlines give us caller names but our wireless phones just give digits? After all, our wireless phones can take photos, play MP3s, show TV clips, respond to voice commands and chaperone our kids. But when it comes to Caller ID, why can't a wireless phone give us a name?

There are absolutely no hard technical reasons your wireless phone doesn't give you the caller's name. There are other, more squishy reasons, which for some readers may hit close to home:

Feature bundling: Wireless carriers have traditionally given away, rather than sold, features like voice mail. Unlike landline carriers that have been able to charge approximately $6 per month for Enhanced Caller ID service, wireless carriers generally believe, despite market studies to the contrary, that their customers won't pay extra for this feature because of strong competitive pricing in the wireless market. As a result, wireless carriers view caller name presentation to the handset (frequently called "CNAP") as an expense item without offsetting revenue.

Perceived Cost: The cost of delivering CNAP is less than half a penny per call, but with billions of calls crossing their networks on a monthly basis, the cost to carriers would be in the millions of dollars. Yet given their overall size and revenue, you could argue that this is a small cost to dramatically improve the quality of their service and, until other carriers adopt it, to differentiate themselves.

Remnants of Old Pricing Structures: When wireless services were first introduced, minutes were expensive. The United States adopted a pricing standard in which subscribers paid for minutes on both inbound and outbound calls (as opposed to Europe, where the calling party pays). U.S. subscribers tend to guard their wireless number and share it only with close friends and important colleagues to prevent unwanted callers from burning up their minutes. As a result, most of the calls received on U.S. wireless phones were from numbers associated with names already stored on the phones. So caller names did appear for the majority of calls, and the added value of a carrier-provided CNAP service appeared limited.

None of these arguments is compelling in today's market where individuals are typically dropping $50 to $100 per month on wireless service. The time is now for CNAP. Here's why:

Dropping Airtime Prices: Since prices for wireless airtime have plummeted, people are more willing than they used to be to pay for inbound calls. As a result, they share their wireless number more liberally. A greater share of inbound calls are now coming from strangers and others whose names aren't programmed into the handset.

Landline Replacement: IDC has forecast that 18 million people will cut the cord and rely solely on their wireless phone by the end of 2007. As people turn to wireless phones as their primary number, they expect the same features that are available on their wireline alternative, such as Enhanced Caller ID.

Privacy: CNAP often gets confused with the debate over Wireless Directory Assistance, which would make wireless listings available to the public. CNAP doesn't do that. It's a completely different service that, in fact, promotes privacy. The primary purpose of Enhanced Caller ID is to ensure that subscribers only answer the calls from people they want to talk to. No one's name is revealed until they've initiated a call. CNAP would effectively force callers to identify themselves. It's only Manners 101.

The business case against CNAP started out rather thin and has only eroded as the wireless market has evolved. The phone in your pocket is twice as powerful as the one on your wall, and it's high time wireless carriers shore up the Achilles Heel in their service.

You have a right to know who's calling. Wireless carriers have every ability to tell you. Instead, you're getting digits, an unbreakable code. What's the holdup?

Fisher (robfisher@TARGUSinfo.com) is vice president of strategic marketing for TARGUSinfo.

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