On Heels Of Favorable FCC Ruling, Verizon Imposes 'Spam' Fees On Text Message Service For Schools, Nonprofits

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

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.

Filed Under: fcc, fees, nonprofits, schools, spam, text messaging
Companies: remind, twilio, verizon


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 4:28am

    'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut from this.'

    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.

    They created the 'service' in order to 'combat' spam, and they are now using the fees from the ones who sign up for it to... deal with the people who sign up to send spam. Or put another way, 'You can send spam, just so long as we get a cut from it.'

    Strange really, I could have swore that the companies and their tool in the FCC Pai defended the reclassification by claiming it would allow said companies to reduce spam, not merely profit from it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 6:26am

      Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut from this.

      For a telecom company anything that is not payed for (at least once) is spam.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        ryuugami, 18 Jan 2019 @ 6:43am

        Re: Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut from t

        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

        FTFY: For a telecom company anything that is not payed for (at least eleven times) is spam.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:02am

          Re: Re: Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut fr

          FTFY (2): For a telecom company anything that is not pai-d for (at least eleven times) is spam

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Wibur, 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:10am

          Re: the problem here is ?

          ...so why shouldn't Verizon charge whatever it wants for its services ?

          why shouldn't a barber charge whatever he wants for a haircut ?

          how is this economics stuff really supposed to work ?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:50am

            Re: Re: the problem here is ?

            "how is this economics stuff really supposed to work ?"

            It falls apart within defect monopolies where there is little choice but people can't just ditch the service. That *should* be where the government steps in to level the playing field, but the FCC are working for the corporations instead of the people they're meant to protect.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 9:06am

            Re: Re: the problem here is ?

            You don't understand what a monopoly is do you?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            rk57957, 18 Jan 2019 @ 9:40am

            Re: Re: the problem here is

            Doesn't Verizon already charge and get paid for its services? I mean if I were stupid enough to be a Verizon customer (I'm not that dumb just dumb enough to be an AT&T one) wouldn't I already be paying Verizon for its services which includes SMS service? Why should people (who are not Verizon customers) then have to pay Verizon for the privilege of sending me a text message through a service I am already paying for?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 10:14am

              Re: Re: Re: the problem here is

              That's not really what's going on. Verizon is raising the fees it charges Twilio, a 3rd party communications provider. Customers use Twilio's APIs to send SMS/MMS messages and make phone calls via software. They're the largest such provider by far. Verizon has decided to charge them more with a fairly poor excuse.

              Twilio, of course, passes those costs on to their users. One of those users is Remind who, as they provide a free service to their users, has decided they can't afford to operate for Verizon customers. The article is somewhat misleading in that it says Verizon is charging Remind but they're not.

              Interestingly, Verizon is one of the cheapest carriers according to Twilio's pricing charts. It's odd that Remind hadn't already refused to send messages to AT&T, Sprint and other carriers via Twilio.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:30am

        Re: Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut from t

        This may well be spam to the recipients too. We had robocalls when I was in school and got a lot of pointless calls (e.g., advertising for school dances). It wasn't an opt-in system. And notice how they say "school closures, classroom activities and other critical information", as if to mislead you into thinking "classroom activities" are critical information—I read that as "school closures, other critical information, and spam".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:35am

          Re: Re: Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut fr

          Of course, if people are paying Verizon for unlimited incoming texts, Verizon shouldn't be able to require payment from senders. Bullshit like that is the cost of deregulation. Next they'll want to charge me if I call a Verizon cellphone, like telcos do in Europe.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 6:33am

      Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut from this.

      That was my take on it as well. TelCom law is a nightmare tangled nest, but...

      If they're adding an additional charge to "known" spammers, doesn't that make them an Accessory to any fraud(s) committed by said spammer(s)?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anon, 18 Jan 2019 @ 10:53am

      Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut from this.

      I am surprised (oh, wait, I'm not) to find text messages still cost money. I had thought that everyone was on the "unlimited text messaging" bandwagon.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 12:17pm

        Re: Re: 'You know what the problem here is? We need a cut from t

        Then you'll also be surprised to learn that this article has nothing to do with cost to the owners of the phones that receive text messages.

        Yay! TUL!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:15am

    Why are people still using text messages anyway? Its 2019, its not secure and is inefficient, makes no sense to me at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:46am

      Re:

      Why are people still using text messages anyway?

      Because the average smartphone owner is not a Techdirt reader and does not understand the issue in the way that we do. They use the same icon on their phone that they've always used.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:56am

      Re:

      Texts are basically free in most contracts, require zero setting up and work easily across networks, providers and manufacturers. People using them for general communication aren't really aware of the security issues, and companies needing to send text as described in the article can just send messages without having to be working out which app each person has to receive messages.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 9:15am

      Re:

      Because not everyone has a smartphone, some have a dumb mobile that is just a phone.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Nusm (profile), 19 Jan 2019 @ 10:45am

      Re:

      I'm a teacher who uses Remind, and let me tell you, it's WAY easier to get a parent to send one text with a code in it to be able to get my updates than it is to try to persuade them to go to the app store, find and download an app, and set it up. Techdirt readers, we are the tech savvy, but think about the average person - think about YOUR parents. Some of my parents don't even know how to find and download an app. They text, they do a little with the browser, they have Facebook and maybe a couple of games, and they can be intimidated by apps.

      While text messaging may be archaic, it's simple, reliable, and most everyone knows how to use it. You can't say that about apps.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Gary (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:43am

    Deregulation is wonderful

    How could less government regulations ever be considered anything but the best choice? We don't need any oversight, food quality, fire safety, or any of that crap. Where is John Galt when we need him?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Chip, 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:47am

      Re: Deregulation is wonderful

      "Jeez", Dude, even "I" at least wait until the Trolls show UP before I make "fun" of Them.

      Every Nation eats the Paint chips it Deserves!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      stderric (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 9:21am

      Re: Deregulation is wonderful

      Where is John Galt when we need him?

      Oh... I'm sorry, you must not have heard. Poor Mr. Galt passed away after a long battle with salmonellosis, small-cell carcinoma, and black-lung disease. (To be fair, though, it was his own fault for not realizing that his meds were just re-labeled tic-tacs... caveat emptor :)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 7:48am

    "But Remind and the company they use to send the messages and alerts (Twilio) already pay Verizon money to carry the texts"

    So, the same argument as when they bitch about Netflix - people are already paying them twice for the service, but they apparently need to be paid a 3rd time just to do their job.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 9:08am

      Re:

      Not 3 times, still twice. It's just the fees are increasing but only for Twilio (with the costs passed on to Remind and other users of their platform). This is just a cash grab from the most successful messaging platform on the net.

      Interestingly, Verizon is still one of the cheapest carriers. See https://www.twilio.com/sms/pricing/usand scroll down to the per-carrier fees for short code messaging.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 9:09am

        Re: Re:

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        ryuugami, 18 Jan 2019 @ 10:29am

        Re: Re:

        Interestingly, Verizon is still one of the cheapest carriers. See https://www.twilio.com/sms/pricing/us and scroll down to the per-carrier fees for short code messaging.

        Does that include the new "you're a spammer, pay up and we'll leave you to it" fee?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 12:19pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Not being an employee of Twilio it's impossible to say whether they've updated their pricing charts. But having worked with them as a Twilio customer for a long time now I'm inclined to assume they have. They're super dev-friendly and really on their game with regard to support and docs.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        newsome (profile), 19 Jan 2019 @ 10:54am

        Re: Re:

        Interestingly, Verizon is still one of the cheapest carriers.

        That doesn't make it okay. Just because they're the least evil, doesn't mean that it isn't still evil. Text messaging is nearly zero cost for the carriers, so anything they make is close to 100% profit, this is just gouging. They're getting away with it because we all hate spam so much, and they throw that word in there to pretend like they're fighting it. In this case it negatively affects a legitimate educational service.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Agammamon, 18 Jan 2019 @ 12:03pm

    . . . Remind has always paid for each text that users receive or send.

    Nobody seems to be asking where Remind gets the money to pay for this.

    If they're harvesting user info for sale - and they are - then why bother? Your phone company is still going to harvest that same info, now you're just letting a smaller, on-the-edge-of-starvation company harvest it also.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Jan 2019 @ 12:09pm

      Re:

      Explain how someone who manages a one way communication from Schools to parents gains any data to mine.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Agammamon, 18 Jan 2019 @ 12:11pm

      Re:

      With that, I'm kind of ok with a spam charge even if its hurting this one company.

      Spam is pernicious, text spam is getting worse. If these parents really need to know about the next Sadie Hawkins dance they can have the school just tweet it, post it on Facebook, email it, post it on the school blog's RSS feed.

      Its 2019 - there really isn't any excuse for a parent in this day not being able to handle *one* of those.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      newsome (profile), 19 Jan 2019 @ 11:05am

      Re:

      Nobody seems to be asking where Remind gets the money to pay for this.

      If they're harvesting user info for sale - and they are - then why bother?

      Actually no, they're not harvesting user info for sale. The basic service is aimed at individual teachers (like me) and is free to use. They offer a paid School & District plan that they sell to entire schools or school systems which has more powerful features. That's where they get the money to pay for this. They offer a small free tier to attract the bigger sale.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 18 Jan 2019 @ 12:51pm

    Umm

    DONT we already pay for our Cell phone service??
    And WHY does V' even have a problem,,,this is PART of the service they PAID for with free data..

    I KNOW...CHANGE the smart phone to another type of msg..
    Oh..SMS works on any phone..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2019 @ 11:53am

    Verizon > Assholes

    If you think Verizon looks like a bunch of assholes now, wait until you read their response about Remind:

    https://www.verizon.com/about/news/app-provider-remind-threatens-eliminate-free-texting-servi ce-k-12-education-organizations-which

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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