You have your choice of horror stories to choose from as AT+T sends out its first service bills for Web access via Apple's iPhones. USA Today covers an active text messager who had her 300-page bill delivered in a box (YouTube video below) while a design consultant who got socked with roaming charges for Web access had to cough up USD 5,000 to settle his everyday use of the mobile web. The culprit in both instances is message units, with AT&T's by-the-byte metering making single-page Web downloads as much as USD 20 per page or more in some instances. With rates like this one can only wonder what mobile Web carriers would have in mind if they decided to start adding on fees for high-traffic Web sites as some of them are proposing for general Web access.
While AT&T dismisses these as extreme examples of billing charges the fact of the matter is that it's indicative of how little phone carriers have come in accepting what creates value in content access today. We have had more than a decade of flat-rate Internet access services and increasing use of free or flat-rate telephony to accelerate the growth of electronic publishing but still the major carriers want to play by the old rules - to the long-term detriment of publishers. The most likely consequence of this early application of inflexible metered billing is to heighten the appeal of proposals before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to make new frequencies available for broadband wireless access more open to competition and transparent access to content and supporting services.
The same threats to revenues faced by publishers as telecommunications companies try to impose tariffs on land-line Internet access are already in place in a mobile marketplace that will represent an increasingly significant portion of publisher revenues - if we can get beyond USD 20-per-page Web downloads. AT&T's clumsy handling of billing may back-handedly do publishers a great favor by letting them see both the promise of a device like the iPhone and the inordinate restrictions for its use to access the Web. Publishers know already that print revenues will no longer fill the bottom line as before: it's time for publishers to push aggressively in the U.S. Congress for a more open, flat-rate approach to mobile Web access that will help them to build online revenues as quickly as possible and to promote more accessible and profitable mobile services that will help them to do that more effectively.