Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Two cents or a dozen spam?

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, some of the recriminations over the school’s emergency response have centered on its slowness to notify students of the 7:15 a.m dormitory shootings, 150 minutes before the main rampage began. Two hours after the initial shootings, the university began to send e-mails and telephone calls to all students.

While a technical fix would not have started the notification sooner, it could have spread the message more widely to those not in their dorm room or on the Internet. (How many classes don’t have students on the Internet? I can’t think of any). The use of mobile phone text messages is an obvious way to fill this notification gap.

After highlighting a best-case scenario of UT Austin using text messaging earlier this year, three reporters in the Wall Street Journal this morning summarized the available emergency notification options available to schools, government and companies (registration required). The astounding paragraph was the following:

Mobile Campus — which provides text-message services to more than a dozen customers, including the University of Texas — offers its services free of charge on the condition that the universities allow the company to send two promotional text messages per day to students who subscribe to their services. E2Campus, another text-messaging company that has more than 30 customers, charges $1 a year per student for universities to use their communications services. Both companies say that they received an overwhelming number of inquiries after the Virginia Tech shootings.
Spam — in e-mail, telephone calls and cell phones — is rampant, affecting billions of people, the “broken window” of our electronic society. But if it were a choice of saving lives vs. annoying messages, it would be hard for anti-spam activists to argue that a university should avoid services such as Mobile Campus, which has already been adopted at UT Austin (amid controversy), Florida and Penn.

But ask a hundred students on campus — or put it to a formal vote: are you willing to pay a dollar to avoid up to 730 spam messages each year? That’s less than 2¢ for every dozen messages. What’s really scary is that with an advertising-supported system — and the attendant opt-out option — less people would get the essential messages when they are needed.

E2Campus (a reseller of an integrated notification system made by Omnilert LLC) seems to have a more viable revenue model. If Mobile Campus sticks to its existing revenue model, it seems like it will be left behind by the imminent explosion of demand for such services.

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TerrenceM said...
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Daniel Lemire said...

I believe you are exactly right on this issue.