A New Net-Neutrality Battle Brews Over…Text Messages

A New Net-Neutrality Battle Brews Over…Text Messages
Dec 3 2014

When Verizon pulled the plug on Gene Lew’s company, it gave no warning. At first, Lew thought some sort of router had crashed inside the network. “It wasn’t until we did a lot of digging,” Lew says, “we found out that someone turned the switch off.”

Lew is the chief technology officer at HeyWire Business, a 35-person Cambridge, Massachusetts company that gives businesses a way to receive text messages on their toll-free 800 numbers. But when the outage hit on April 3, it temporarily put a stop to that. If anyone tried to text these numbers from a phone on Verizon’s network—the second largest in the U.S.—their texts went into a black hole. There was no error message. Nothing. 

Then Verizon told HeyWire that it was changing the way it handled the company’s traffic. “We were told: ‘There’s a new set of fees. There’s a new set of rules. And you’ll have to create a new business relationship to be able to let our customers text your company,’” says Meredith Flynn-Ripley, HeyWire’s CEO.

For HeyWire Business, that was a big problem. Flynn-Ripley says it was a way for Verizon to squeeze more money out of her company, charging higher fees to have those texts delivered. Citing a non-disclosure agreement, she can’t reveal what rules Verizon laid down and what fees the carrier is charging her company, but—more importantly—she says Verizon has unfair control over her how her business operates—and she sees this a violation of net neutrality, the notion that all online traffic should be treated equally.

As the Federal Communications Commission considers new net neutrality regulations for home and business broadband connections—and perhaps even the networks at the heart of the internet—HeyWire Business isn’t the only one complaining about this kind of thing. Another texting startup, called Twilio, tells a similar story, and since HeyWire Business’s experiences with Verizon in April, the other three big carriers—Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile—have all implemented or proposed similar changes, according to service providers interviewed by WIRED.

According to Flynn-Ripley, the problem isn’t about the new fees. It’s about the control of the SMS texting network that the carriers are starting to assert. “We believe these new rules and fees go well beyond the fast and slow lane debate of net neutrality,” says Flynn-Ripley. “This is about operators unilaterally blocking access for individuals or entire… providers with really little or no notice. This is censorship.”

Voice communications are covered under the 1934 Telecommunications Act, and by year’s end, the FCC is expected to propose new rules governing broadband internet. But SMS is in a kind of no man’s land, essentially unregulated, and it is evolving into far more than just a way of sending quick messages to friends and family. Through companies like HeyWire Business, Twilio, Google, and Microsoft, it has evolved into a platform that glues together other applications.