Face It Carriers: Free Services Might Be Better Than Your Paid Ones


Verizon Wireless (s vz) today announced a new version of its smartphone navigation app, VZ Navigator VX. The software adds 3-D visuals for six specific cities, with more to follow, “real” signs and road views, satellite maps and day/night modes as well as Facebook integration. Found in the Android Market (s goog), the service costs $9.99 per month, $4.99 per week or $2.99 for single-day use. Isn’t it time that carriers stopped offering paid services that compete with comparable free ones?

Clearly, network operators don’t want to be “dumb pipes” by simply providing the data connection for a growing number of smartphones or tablets and the apps that run on them. That’s why Verizon will sell customers a paid navigation service when its handsets already offer a free one. For example, the new VZ Navigator VX is initially supported on the Motorola Droid X (s mmi), HTC Droid Incredible and Samsung Fascinate handsets, all of which have Google Maps navigation pre-installed. Consumer choice isn’t a bad thing, but I’m willing to bet that most VZ Navigation subscribers on an Android phone buy the service through Verizon mainly because they don’t know they have a similar, free service available on their handset already.

Verizon’s updated navigation service isn’t the only example of this situation, but it just popped up today, causing me to think about the services that carriers provide. In fairness to Verizon, the Facebook integration feature is something Google Maps navigation currently lacks. Is that feature worth $10 a month to some? Perhaps, but probably very few. The 3-D navigation is limited to six cities for now and without seeing it first-hand, it’s difficult to determine how much value it adds.

The fact remains that in this particular instance, Google isn’t resting on its laurels when it comes to Google Maps navigation. Since launching the free service — on Verizon’s Motorola Droid, no less — Google has added new data layers, offline rerouting and Street View in supported areas. Google is likely to continue iterating the service with new features, and I’d argue it can probably do so faster than any single carrier can. It’s worth noting that TeleCommunications Systems powers the VZ Navigator VX service (s tsys), so Verizon has to spend time, money and effort to integrate the service into its software. That explains why it can’t be freely offered, but I still question why Verizon offers it at all on an Android device.

Carriers will say they offer such services to provide value to their customers, and I’m sure for some, these types of paid or subscriber services do offer the perception of value. Unless these add-ons are head-and-shoulders above competing free services, however, my take away is that they’re effectively a money grab from consumers who really don’t know any better. Yes, that’s the very “let the buyer beware” nature that fuels our capitalist environment, but it brings up an issue of perception.

Network operators often wonder why some may view them as greedy cash cows, but they shouldn’t be surprised by that viewpoint when they keep pushing their own paid services over free ones that work just as well for most. I’d rather see the cost and effort spent in improving the network as opposed to services with marginal returns over free options. I respect the challenge of trying to create value-add services to fend off becoming a conduit to the services of others, but I’m not sold on this particular example.

Perhaps I’m too cynical here, and in an effort of disclosure, I should note that I’m not a Verizon smartphone customer currently. I was for years, but haven’t been since 2007, solely due to my choice of smartphone hardware. So for you Verizon subscribers out there who own an Android handset, do use Verizon’s paid navigation over Google’s free version? More importantly, I’d like to know why. And since the other carriers offer paid services that can be replicated by free ones, let’s open up the comments to everyone else too: Are you paying for a carrier service you can get for free?

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I have a Samsung Fascinate, and I’d love to dump VZ Navigator for Google Maps. But, the volume on Google Maps (and several other apps) is so low on my device, it’s unusable. Over my car’s BT adapter, it is completely inaudible. I’ve tried all the hacks and secret menu settings that supposedly fix this, but they haven’t worked for me.

It’s especially annoying for me, since Nav is very inaccurate in my phone — laggy and at least 50 yards off. Has my house and business in the wrong blocks, too.


I’ve subscribed to nav services in the past and the reason is twofold. First, Google Nav is free for a reason and after seeing firsthand how inaccurate and/or roundabout it can be, it’s not even my third choice when I’m in unfamiliar territory. Second, when I’m away for a week or two a year, $10 for that period of time is a lot more palatable than $60+ for another commerical app such as Navigon or TomTom. Sometimes free is better but usually you get what you pay for.

John Pugh

Exchange listed companies typically have the profit margin mentality where they have to maximize their shareholders ROI. This is one reason I admire Google. They’ve managed to maintain the focus of creating services that users will find useful. Corporations think in reverse. “Let’s put lots of stuff on the market and see which ones create sustainable revenue streams!”

Another example is the compromised operating system they throw on top of the (Android) phones where they not only change the skins but add their proprietary service portals. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the business models but it has been very refreshing to be valued as a consumer by Google’s no-fee products and the fact that I was able to buy a “virgin” Nexus One without a contract and with unfettered and timely updates directly from Google.

Personally, I use Google Voice’s voicemail service whereas AT&T would charge me for it (if it was available). I use Google Nav versus paying for their GPS service. And for the money I pay for their use (nothing!) I’m quite satisfied particularly knowing that they’re still works in progress.

In fact I bought GPS around Thanksgiving that I really haven’t used since I bought a car charger for my phone.

Btw Kevin, I read on one of the boards that you’re looking to move on from you’re Nexus One. True?

Kevin C. Tofel

I am looking to move on from my Nexus One but not because the phone doesn’t meet my needs. Instead, the Galaxy Tab is meeting all of the needs of my smartphone, minus cellular voice. I’m experimenting right now, but that’s not a knock against the Nexus One, which is among the best mobile tech investments I’ve ever made; even at full price.

Joel McLaughlin

Total crap. I haven’t used a VZ service since I moved to Android. The last handset I had where I used it was a LG enV2 and I have NO reason to use it now since Google Maps is so good.

Honestly, I think Verizon would do WELL to just drop the idea of these services and just provide a fast and reliable pipe that is ALSO NOT CAPPED. People would FLOCK to them.

Joel McLaughlin

Total crap. I haven’t used a VZ service since I moved to Android. The last handset I had where I used it was a LG enV2 and I have NO reason to use it now since Google Maps is so good.

Honestly, I think Verizon would do WELL to just drop the idea of these services and just provide a fast and reliable pipe that is ALSO NOT CAPPED. People would FLOCK to them.


Of course Verizon doing a “money grab”. It would be cheaper in many instances to buy a dedicated GPS instead of paying for their service for a year. They don’t want to be a “dumb pipe” but they really don’t want to spend money on quality services at a reasonable price. However, I would say that “Google Maps” is also not free. Nothing is “free” and their maps are just paid for by advertisers.

Kevin C. Tofel

Fair point on ad-supported services not being “free” in the strictest of senses; my focus was on actual dollars coming from the wallet for such service.


The dedicated GPS devices have yearly subscription models to update the maps and Points of interest as well as the software. Plus their maps normally dont update over the air and in real time either. There is a cost to everything =)


I don’t think this is a fair comparison currently – VZ Navigator isn’t trying to compete with google maps so much as it is tom tom and garmin, or other paid “premium” navigation apps. Google’s navigation service, despite the improvements, is still very bare-bones (sometimes notoriously unreliable), and for people used to more feature-rich satnav/gps systems, it doesn’t always quite fill the gap.

Now truth be told, most people *shouldn’t* need more than google’s straight forward navigation. Heck, most people shouldn’t need more than a paper map. But for those who like a few more features this offering makes at least some sense.

In another year or two though, I doubt it will be able to survive as free offerings improve. The market will decide ultimately.

Now as to why VZ continues to push it’s own worthless media offerings… ;)

Kevin C. Tofel

Interesting aspect: Verizon competing against the other premium nav apps. But in the long run, I wonder how many of them (VZ, TomTom, Garmin, etc….) will eventually compete well against Google Nav as Google continues to improve the service at no charge to customers.

I think you’re right: the market will decide ultimately.

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