According to Diffusion of Innovations theory, crypto-currencies like Bitcoin are in the early adopter phase. How might we develop technologies to bring crypto-currencies into the early majority phase, where its use becomes mainstream? Micropayments through carrier billing might be the answer.
The obvious place to start is digital services, since crypto-currency transactions are necessarily digital. Digital services will begin accepting Bitcoin or other popular crypto-currencies as payment, as acceptance grows among the general population. Most services rely on payment gateways to interface to the payment card industry, but this assumes that payment transactions are denominated in fiat currencies.
We must consider whether adoption of crypto-currency will be advanced by the payment card industry (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover). PCI is extremely stodgy, being in bed with central banking and the financial services sector. This sector has their crony ties to the political establishment through regulatory agencies and the Federal Reserve. You can pretty much count them out as a trustworthy partner in any radical anti-establishment endeavor.
PayPal, Square, Stripe, and other more progressive payment processors may come around, but their ties to fiat currency and PCI may hinder them. The obvious place to begin is with crypto-currency exchanges, which can already provide conversion services between fiat and crypto. The problem with crypto has been high transaction fees, slow transaction settlement, opposition from the regulatory establishment, and lack of integration with payment systems for retail transactions.
An unexplored opportunity is to enable digital service providers to use other forms of pseudo-currency that have low transaction fees. Whereas Bitcoin remains obscure for conducting business between ordinary people, consumers are already quite comfortable with vouchers, coupons, rewards, loyalty points, or gift cards. Pseudo-currencies suffer from a closed network of vendors (limited fungibility) and non-convertibility, but the end user doesn’t incur transaction fees, because the vendors eat the cost of operating the network to benefit from the cross-selling opportunities generated within the network. Perhaps this vector for adoption can provide crypto an acceptable way of infiltrating the mainstream economy without raising regulatory ire, since loyalty reward programs are already well-established. Adding convertibility between a loyalty pseudo-currency and crypto would provide backdoor access into retail transactions within closed loyalty networks. It’s a beach head.
The value proposition is that service providers can be given the option to join a network of vendors who accept the same pseudo-currency (as a proxy to crypto). This allows customers who earn loyalty rewards from one vendor to spend them at another within the network. This is the same concept as how airlines, hotels, and rental car companies can join in alliances, like Star Alliance, Oneworld, or SkyTeam. The difference a pseudo-currency system would make is that it would provide the infrastructure that would allow merchants throughout the world to join together into alliances, and to create such alliances arbitrarily between themselves. This opens up this valuable capability to small and medium sized businesses, who would otherwise not be able to afford the global infrastructure such a loyalty reward system would require.
Telecom carriers are in a good position to provide a loyalty reward system for partners, who offer digital services using the carrier’s network and infrastructure.
Today, content publishing platforms, such as Substack, Locals, and traditional corporate media sites, offer subscription services. The subscriber is charged on a monthly recurring basis to gain access to paywalled content. Users who follow a link to read an article must sign up for a subscription even when they only want to read a single article without being obliged to a long-term commitment.
Moreover, users are loathe to authorize many online services to take automatic payments from their payment cards, especially less well-known brands of unknown reputation and with no established relationship. Naturally, users are reluctant to provide their payment card information indiscriminately. Fraud and hacking are legitimate concerns. All of these concerns, which are critical barriers to converting clicks into revenue for content creators, can be ameliorated by offering digital services as partners with a trusted telecom carrier who can charge the subscriber through carrier billing. This would provide a better user experience to access content, and this would improve conversions to generate revenue by removing friction.
One of my friends on Facebook had this thought.
Magazines and newspapers: You know we’d be happy to pay you by the article, right? That if you offered that option instead of slamming a monthly-subscription paywall in front of us, we’d pay for a few articles a month and our micropayments would add up to the equivalent of many monthly subscribers. Maybe more than you’d lose, since those who subscribe are happy to do that and the rest of us would be posting and linking, bringing you micropayers who just navigate away from your paywall now? Yeah, just saying.
I’m guessing micro-payments are not offered today in part because payment processors charge transaction fees with some minimum that make this unprofitable, and also inputting payment card information from a customer to make a one-off micro-payment would seem like way too much work to collect a few pennies.
If we could solve the micro-payments problem for cloud services, that would open up huge opportunities throughout the digital economy. We do see hints of technology emerging to enable this, such as “super chats” in YouTube, where viewers of a live video stream can tip small amounts of money to support the presenter. But the real need is for this capability to be generalized to enable arbitrary micro-payment transactions in every context on the Internet, and for this to become prolific everywhere. The revenue opportunity is enormous — equal or larger in scale to Google’s ad revenues, as this change in paradigm is precisely the replacement for ad-based revenues. The ad model supports “free” content, but it relies on users to tolerate the clutter of ads, while also luring some users to convert ad impressions into clicks and purchases. The ad model is known to create perverse incentives for Big Tech platforms to implement algorithms that place users into information bubbles, manufacture outrage to increase engagement, and keep users occupied on the platform for longer durations (promoting addiction). Micro-payments supported content would ameliorate the harms of an ad-supported model.
Ad monetization is like a micro-payments platform. Each click is charged a few cents, and these charges are accumulated over a billing period at which point the bill is settled. Because of the threat to ad revenues, you will not see Google blaze the trail for micro-payments.
We should look to carrier billing to take advantage by solving this problem through aggregation of charges, as carriers normally do for service usage. The connection between how customers are billed and invoiced and how money flows decouples the payment flow from the buying flow. This means that the carrier acts somewhat like a “bank”, of sorts. That is, postpaid purchases are aggregated into itemized charges on a bill. The bill collects all the charges together for settlement on a monthly basis.
Then, look at how African carriers enable unbanking for poorer people by leveraging the subscriber’s account balance to become positive or negative (like a bank account), and to enable money transfers between subscriber accounts to facilitate financial transactions. This exact paradigm should be seen as an opportunity to expand the two features (carrier billing with account balances that work like bank accounts) to innovate in the area of enabling a micro-payments platform that revolutionizes both the online world and commerce between individuals.
What I envision is the following. What Zelle is to banking — an integration between banks to do money transfers between users via email or other methods of communicating a transaction between users — the Internet needs a general purpose “money flow” protocol that facilitates integration between web sites and entities that can facilitate money flow — be they carriers or other commercial entities that can handle the charging, billing, invoicing, and settlement functions. The key is to enable arbitrary web sites to integrate to participate in money flow (easy setup like Zelle), and for the end user interaction with these web sites to enable one-click confirmation of a micro-payment (“do you want to pay 5c to read this article?”). And of course, for these integrations to fall outside of PCI-DSS compliance; otherwise, it is not viable from an ease-of-integration and cost perspective.
Opportunity for Carriers
Whereas the imaginary killer apps for 5G (augmented reality, IoT) still have no concrete implementations yet that are compelling in the market, the revenue opportunity for carrier billing, micro-payments, and unbanking are more immediate, realistic, and obviously under-served.
This strategy is synergistic with the roll out and adoption of 5G capabilities to develop killer apps of the future. Carriers can offer to partners to host their digital services without charging for utilization of the carrier’s network and infrastructure resources. Instead, use Apple’s successful revenue model of taking a fixed percentage of the partner’s revenue from selling their digital services. With carrier billing, the carrier handles the revenue sharing and settlement, as they are adept at doing today for roaming.
Then, a network of digital service vendors would join this micropayment ecosystem. As these purchasing transactions are performed by users, the carrier records these charges. On a monthly basis, each vendor gets paid an aggregate amount from all users. It’s equivalent to an ad network micro-payment platform, except products are paid for directly, and there are no ads. People hate ads.
Using this strategy, carriers can package together their network infrastructure, their platform services, their monetization system, and their loyal customer base to offer digital (over-the-top) service providers privileged access as revenue sharing partners. By doing so, a carrier would then be able to hitch their wagon to high margin revenue opportunities created by innovative new digital services, instead of being relegated to the ever-decreasing profit-per-bit dumb pipes business.