Just about a month ago the FCC quietly handed the telecom industry another favor by voting to reclassify text messages as an "information service" instead of a "telecommunications service" under the Telecom Act, effectively freeing text messaging practices from government oversight. While the FCC stated the move was essential in order to fight text spam, consumer groups were quick to note the lack of oversight provided cellular carriers a nifty way to hamper third-party SMS services that might just compete with, or cause problems for, their own offerings.
Fast forward to this month, and lo and behold, Verizon's already ruffling some feathers on this front. Remind, a free school texting, chat and messaging service used by teachers, students, school coaches, and parents, this week sent a notice to its customers stating that it may no longer be able to offer the service on the Verizon network thanks to a new "spam" fee Verizon is imposing on a service that's not really spam. From the notice to customers:
"To offer our text messaging service free of charge, Remind has always paid for each text that users receive or send. Now, Verizon is charging Remind an additional fee intended for companies that send spam over its network.
Your Remind messages aren’t spam, but that hasn’t helped resolve the issue with Verizon. The fee will increase our cost of supporting text messaging to at least 11 times our current cost—forcing us to end free Remind text messaging for the more than 7 million students, parents, and educators who have Verizon Wireless as their carrier.
While several Canadian companies charge similar fees, Remind said on Twitter that Verizon was the only US company (for now) to begin charging this fee, which the company estimates could cost it up to several million dollars annually. And because the FCC gutted all regulatory oversight, the agency eroded any meaningful authority over Verizon or any additional company looking to impose such spurious surcharges. When pressed by Ars Technica, Verizon stuck to its claim that the new surcharge is essential to help combat spam:
"Verizon, which touts its commitment to education, defended the new fee. Such fees are "intended to share costs incurred to help protect students, parents, and teachers from spam and dangerous text messages over the Verizon network, while reducing fraud," Verizon said in a statement to Ars.
Verizon said the "very small fee will be charged only to major text-messaging aggregation companies such as Remind and Twilio–and not schools, parents, or students." The fees "pay for the work required to contain spam and fraud associated with this service," Verizon said.
But Remind and the company they use to send the messages and alerts (Twilio) already pay Verizon money to carry the texts, and this new fee will only compound those costs dramatically to Verizon's direct financial benefit. In the midst of the bickering between the two companies, Verizon issued a news release saying it would back away from its original plan, slightly. This being Verizon, it was unable to do so without attempting to shift the blame entirely to Remind:
"As discussed this week with Remind, Verizon will not charge Remind fees as long as they don’t begin charging K-12 schools, educators, parents and students using its free text message service. Despite this offer, made Tuesday, Remind has not changed its position that it will stop sending free texts to Verizon customers who use the service regarding school closures, classroom activities and other critical information."
In short, Verizon's "compromise" is that it will reverse the fee for K-12 users of the free Remind service, but that still means numerous other users of the service (like coaches, preschools, and day care centers) will still face the arbitrary fee. Remind tells Ars Technica they've yet to get that proposal in writing, and there's questions as to how K-12 users would even verify their exemption with Verizon in the first place. A better option remains to simply not engage in the cash grab at all.
This particular fight over text messaging oversight began a little more than a decade ago, when Verizon decided to ban a pro-choice group named NARAL Pro-Choice America from sending text messages to Verizon Wireless customers who had opted in to receiving them. Verizon justified the ban by declaring the text messages "controversial or unsavory." A curious move for an industry that has historically cuddled up to marketing spammers and crammers when it's profitable.
Ever since then consumer groups, worried that cellular carriers would abuse their gatekeeper power on the text messaging front, have been urging the FCC to declare text messages a “telecommunications service," making it illegal for carriers to ban, hinder, or impose arbitrary fees on such select SMS services. Of course the Ajit Pai FCC did the exact opposite, and here we are, with non-profits and schools lighting up Twitter with complaints under the #reversethefee hashtag.