Opinion: Parental controls for mobile content – are operators shooting themselves in the foot?

September 14, 2007 at 5:01 pm

inbabble-content-control.jpgA while ago we reported on Omego from March Ventures, a phone service that allows parents to control how their kids use their mobile phone remotely via a PC. We really weren’t sure if this could work, particularly as the service is tied to a proprietary handset that we think falls a bit short in the design department. However, when big hitters like O2 in the UK and AT&T in the US start jumping on the bandwagon, it’s obviously a topic that deserves to be taken seriously. But will they pay the price for upsetting their future customer base?

AT&T’s Smart Limits for Wireless service for US customers costs $4.99 per month and allows parents to control:

  • Talk time
  • SMS volume
  • Downloadable purchases
  • Time of use
  • Inbound and outbound calls
  • Internet content access

Meanwhile, O2 in the UK has teamed up with child protection charity Childnet to launch a child protection website that allows parents to utilize a range of call blocking and content control services, report spam, and take action against phone-based bullying.

Setting usage limits makes a lot of sense from a financial perspective – it is incredibly easy for kids to rack up large bills without them necessarily knowing that they are doing so, or how difficult it can make things for Mum and Dad if they are the ones paying the bill. It also obviously makes sense for usage to be restricted during school hours. However, as far as content and contact control is concerned, while making kids safer is a great objective, implementation is a bit more problematic. For example, even if parents manage to successfully block a particular site or contact, there are likely to be more than enough opportunities for the child to access the same thing via friends’ phones. And in order for parents to block something in the first place, they have to know about it. Bullying and unsuitable contacts in particular could be difficult to police without the cooperation of the child concerned.

Not only that, from a business perspective, promoting parental controls could be a double-edged sword for operators. It will certainly make them popular with parents. However, a lot of mobile-Internet enabled content and services, such as video sharing and social networking are primarily aimed at and consumed by young people. Restricting access will have an impact on revenues. And they might also jeopardize positive associations with their brand, developed through the use of these services, that contribute to brand loyalty in later life, and help to reduce customer churn and maximize revenue for many years.

So the choice for operators may be between bolstering their corporate social responsibility image and improving loyalty among existing key customers i.e. parents, and losing vital revenue not just today, but well into the future, as today’s youth will almost certainly end up spending a lot more on mobile communications than their parents ever will. Operators will therefore be hoping that kids blame their parents for purchasing these kind of services, rather than the operators for offering them. Any parents reading this will probably already know which is the more likely scenario in their household.

Hamish M.
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Entry filed under: march ventures, mobile applications, mobile content, mobile content control, smart limits for wireless.

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