Attendees of the South By Southwest (SXSW to you cool kids) music conference in Austin were annoyed by what they perceived as lousy coverage from AT&T's mobile network, so naturally they took to those same airwaves to complain about it. While they were on Twitter twittering away about who was playing where with whom, or whatever it is they twitter about at SXSW, they slammed AT&T--and AT&T responded. The company, according to GigaOM and other media outlets and blogs, responded to the tornado of tweets by quickly improving network capacity in downtown Austin.
Twitter has sometimes been viewed as a potential competitive threat to telcos and mobile carriers, as another Internet-born community that could steal their service and marketing thunder while strangling their network capacity. A few years ago, network operators might have scoffed at the potential of an Internet community, whether MySpace, Facebook, Twitter or something else, to be a force to be reckoned with or even acknowledged. However, AT&T's response to the SXSW complaints and Verizon Communications' desire to integrate Twitter and other third-party applications with its FiOS TV service shows that the big telcos are starting to get the message.
There are two obviously ironic things about the situation with AT&T in Austin: The first is that many of those attendees experiencing bad coverage could have called or even text-messaged (with what we Bellheads use to call SMS) AT&T to complain directly-if they could get a call through, that is. Maybe some of them did complain directly-but the power of community broadcast and viral Web behavior is capable of speaking more loudly than the lone subscriber ranting to a lone customer service rep. The second ironic thing is that all the twittering probably helped create the network congestion in the first place in an area of AT&T's network that probably has suitable capacity 51 weeks out of the year.
And that's all just fine because it is important that telcos and mobile carriers learn how to manage their networks to support the crush of messaging traffic that Internet phenoms like Twitter are bound to create in certain situations or under specific circumstances. It's still unclear how deeply Twitter can penetrate the telco business model or telco customer service practices beyond mobile. For example, will Twitter usage effectively translate to the TV-based widgets that Verizon hopes to create? Also, a bunch of telco residential landline broadband users Twittering about slow Internet access is not going to get the same response as users of AT&T's Austin mobile network did.
However, as Twitter usage increases, usage trends become more clear, and customer comments and complaints about network performance arise, you can expect that telcos increasingly will be listening and watching, and perhaps even twittering right alongside the other twitterers.
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