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Wireless operators turn an eye to the personal data business

Mark Sullivan | March 4, 2013
Just like social networks, phone carriers will walk the line between selling valuable data and compromising their subscribers' privacy.

BARCELONA-A company that owns a group of sports venues was approached by a large wireless carrier with an interesting proposition. The wireless company was already going to install a set of cell signal amplifiers in the stadiums, but the operator offered to also sell the stadium owner certain data about the people who were using the network in the stadium. The data would come from the databases of demographic and behavioral information the operator kept about its subscribers.

If the stadium operator knew certain facts about the people who were at the venue, it could know what ads and promotions to show to them during the game. If the stadium owner knew, for example, that 60 percent of the crowd were males in the 35 to 47 age range who had a tendency to shop for Ford trucks, the stadium might show Ford truck ads on the scoreboard, charging Ford megabucks to do so.

This is the new business that some in the wireless business believe represents the future for wireless operators, sources here in Barcelona tell me.

The phone company would essentially become a Big Data company that sells a certain unique package of data to anybody who could use it to target ads. Would-be customers include anyone from banks to websites to car dealerships.

The phone company might know, for example, the demographic data on the group of subscribers who drive on the interstate near a certain cell tower. The owner of the giant billboard sign sitting near that section of interstate, somebody like Gannett, could use that data to decide what ads to post there.

Wireless companies are in a unique position to gather a lot of personal information. We have our mobile phones on us almost all the time, and we do a lot of things on them that identify us and betray a lot about our tastes, habits and desires. As we carry our device around with us during the day, the phone company can track our locations very closely as we move from cell tower to cell tower in the network. This is just the stuff that advertisers and marketers crave, and they´ll pay a lot of money for it.

In the interactive advertising business, hundreds of big data companies collect their own special mix of personal preference and demographic data. An interactive ad agency might detect a pixel on your browser as you visit a site, then match that pixel with the one associated with a data set about you in some big data company´s database. Then the web advertiser knows who you are and what you like, and can target ads at you better.


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