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Nov 13 / Jonathan

Condorcet cellphone paradox

The Condorcet voting paradox, in voting theory, says that it’s possible to have (for example) three candidates A, S & V such that the voters collectively prefer A to S, S to V and V to A. It sounds impossible, but that’s why it’s called a paradox.

There seems to be something like that for cellphone service providers. Sprint is bad. AT&T is worse than Sprint. Verizon is worse than AT&T. And Sprint is worse than Verizon. Follow that?

Sprint has the worst coverage by far, though I use it because it happens to cover my house in the boonies. iPhone lovers hate AT&T, and many iPhone prospects won’t buy one until it show up on another network. So that leaves Verizon, right? Not so fast, says David Pogue.

… The more Verizon gouges, the worse it looks. Every single day, I get e-mail from people saying they’re switching at the first opportunity, or would if they could. In time, the only people who will stay with Verizon are people who have no coverage with any other carrier.

Every company’s dream, right? A base of miserable customers who stick with you only because they have no choice. …

Each provider is worse than all the others. That’s Condorcet’s paradox applied to cellphones. As Pogue asks,

Why wouldn’t it be a hugely profitable move to start pitching yourself as the GOOD cell company, the one that actually LIKES its customers?

That, of course, is crazy talk. Next thing you know he’ll be suggesting that there could be a GOOD airline company, and we’ll have to call the men in the white coats.

One Comment

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  1. Loren / Nov 14 2009

    Excellent point to relate these phenomena, and I think the root cause of these seemingly contradictory assessments is that assessment is multi-dimensional.

    For candidates, one may like their position on some policy but not others, and if no candidate is strongly aligned with the voter one is going to be left in a quandry.

    For cell customers it’s a question of coverage, reliability, price, and service. Unless a company scores well on all of these there won’t be a clear choice. Once you have a service you don’t like the competitors will look better … possibly until you switch and try them. With multi-year contracts and hardware ties like iPhone/ATT choice is artificially made more difficult.

    From the cell provider perspective one imagines running the business hinges on decisions between resource allocation to these factors, but just enough to get ahead of the competition. Henry Ford (?) is said to have directed on hearing that steering columns never fail that they should be re-designed as they must be over-engineered and hence wasteful.

    The clear solution seems to be easy-to-switch contracts without lock-in and to unbundle service from subsidized hardware, and publish service coverage, reliability, and quality statistics much like airlines do with on-time arrivals. (Not likely to happen soon.)

    While the paradoxical preference is the same I’m not sure the political choices are this way for similar reasons. To some degree it may be said that Obama traded tough talk on Afghanistan to avoid looking “weak” to push other agenda, for example.

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