Social media vs citizen messaging: a lost opportunity?

At some point we will have to progress beyond SMS for “government-to-citizen” messaging. This is an opportunity to solve some longstanding problems.

OK, I’ll confess! I am not a virgin. For that matter, I’m not even a “born again virgin”, as one of my naughtier friends claims to be — surprisingly often. So, having seen family off at Kings Cross station this morning, I popped into the clinic for my regular HIV/STD check-up. It is basic responsible self-care, along with consuming dark chocolate and then brushing my teeth.

At opening time there already was a queue down the street. I guess nookie must be popular in London, after all. Somewhat frustratingly, the hottie was standing right behind me, rather than in front, but I got a good ogle at him later on. It’s all very slickly organised, so you can be in and out in time unit of a tall latte. Indeed, a coffee well in advance is a good idea, as it can help micturition matters along, if you get my meaning!

Inherent to the clinic’s business process is SMS messaging. It is used at many stages: to encourage you to go, to send you directions once you’ve done your swilling and swabbing, to send you the results afterwards, and — if you’ve had a mishap — to schedule treatment. It’s all very efficient and effective. It’s also free at the point of use, being an NHS service.

Mobile operators have wasted years and million on RCS, the purported successor to SMS. In the meantime, “over the top” messaging services like WhatsApp have completely overtaken SMS in features and attractiveness for consumer messaging. Social media has sucked up most of the rest of the demand. SMS is slowly dying out.

The trick that telcos have missed is to recognise their innate role as gatekeepers, ones who have a network end point identity (like a SIM card) and retail and wholesale billing. They can offer “through the middle” services that have very different properties to those of “over the top players”. Just as SMS evolved from a ubiquitous engineering need, these need to address the universal needs of citizens, which are different from their role as consumers.

There is zero chance that I would ever let a Facebook or Google messaging app anywhere near my personal and private health data. It would be wrong to encourage or force people to use them, as well. The very nature of healthcare provision, for example, is that it has to cater to the lowest common denominator, and its users can come from anywhere in the world. Privacy is paramount, and “social” media’s business model is antithetical to that.

If telcos had targeted RCS-like services at the “enterprise-to-citizen” market, then they could have legitimately claimed it as their own. It is the kind of slow-moving need, likely heavily regulated, that fits the tempo of telco standards development and operational innovation. Whilst it may not be a massive revenue source, it could have nicely contributed to the cost of development of new network and billing capabilities.

My observation of working with the poor and vulnerable is that we desperately need to provide ubiquitous virtual access to public services. Everyone, regardless of income, should be able to have a video call from home with their GP and MP, for instance. This demands we develop service assurance (as it has to work even for rural DSL users), and sender-party billing (as many vulnerable users are too poor to pay).

It is “universal service 2.0”, but focused on the core personal communications experience, not the raw network service. By seeing society as a stakeholder, and not just shareholders, the telecoms industry might yet find a way to help both to prosper to mutual benefit. It is very ordinary for telecoms R&D costs to be shouldered by defence and public sector projects, and this is a legitimate one for government funding.

So why not initiate a “citizen media” programme, always “free at the point of use”, building on existing initiatives like emergency communications? Hopefully someone will get the message to network operators, who have missed their appointment with this lost opportunity.

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