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Insiders Weigh Prospect Of Wireless Spam

A law banning spam delivered to wireless devices goes into effect next month. But is it necessary?

In less than a month, it will be illegal to send commercial messages to any Internet domain associated with wireless messaging subscription services.

The ban is the result of rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in August to implement the Can-Spam Act. The commission's goal is to protect consumers from spam on their wireless phones and pagers. With the exception of a few provisions that require approval from the Office of Management and Budget, the rules will become law Oct. 18.

To assist marketers in determining where they can send spam, the FCC is creating a public list of domains used for mobile-service messaging. Individual addresses in those domains won't be listed.

"I think the FCC ruling is a great step in the right direction," says Alex Campbell, CEO of Vibes Media, a text-messaging marketing company. "There are people out there who will look at cell phones and say, 'there are 169 million of them out in the U.S. What if I build this program on my PC that sends an E-mail to your phone number and let it run?' It'll stop that, as well it should."

The ban doesn't prohibit short-message-service messages transmitted solely to phone numbers (as opposed to those sent to Internet addresses).

Though Campbell approves of the ban, he questions the need for it, noting that from a marketing perspective, spamming text messages doesn't work.

"The cell phone is a very personal device," he says. "If you're going to do marketing with cell phones, you have to do it right." To Campbell, that means sending text messages only to those cell phone users who have requested it.

Spammers have no such scruples. At the end of August, Verizon Wireless was granted a permanent injunction against a Rhode Island-based spammer who sent spam to Verizon customers. The unsolicited short-text-messages offered mortgage loans and directed individuals to adult Web sites. The spammer and his associates distributed their messages with spoofed addresses so that unsuspecting people appeared to be the senders of the spam. Verizon has filed suits against other wireless spammers as well.

While spam on the Internet remains a far larger problem than wireless spam, mobile providers are nonetheless concerned.

"It's one of those low-probability, high-outcome events," explains Jeff Popoff, VP of marketing for Redknee Inc., a maker of mobile network apps. "In certain markets, we see that less than a 100 sources are generating 90% of the spam. But the nuisance factor is quite high for business people who rely on short messaging."

"It only takes a small burst of spam to really turn people off quickly," Popoff says. "So there's not a huge window to address the problem."

As to whether the FCC regulation will have the desired effect, Popoff quips that Can-Spam will probably do for mobile subscribers what it has done for E-mail users. Which is to say, very little.

"I think it will get worse before it gets better," he says. "I know carriers are very, very sensitive to stopping this problem as soon as possible without inhibiting the business usage, which is quite important to their revenue stream."

It's an open question, however, as to whether the carriers can protect their revenue stream and their customers at the same time. Six of the seven major wireless carriers in the United States plan to introduce a wireless directory service as soon as 2005, according to testimony before a Senate committee this week. Critics say the directory could post a threat to customers' privacy.

The only carrier opposed to the plan, Verizon Wireless, called it a terrible idea. Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee, Dennis Strigl, CEO of Verizon Wireless, said that his company doesn't publish customer phone numbers to preserve subscribers' privacy and prevent them from getting spam calls, which they would have to pay for.

"In fact, we see more reason today than ever to protect customers' privacy," Strigl said. "The floodgates are open to spam, viruses, telemarketing, and other unwanted, unsolicited messages on land-line phones, computers, and in mail boxes. We think our customers view their cell phones as one place where they don't face these intrusions, where they have control over their communications."

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