Rita Sembajwe, BreathEasy Project Manager, and Barbara Massoudi, BreathEasy Principal Investigator
Research studies and other projects utilizing mobile devices frequently experience specific challenges related to mobile accounts and billing. As part of Project HealthDesign’s BreathEasy study, RTI International obtained smartphones and service plans for the 30 participants and several spare phones for project staff. We’d like to share a few tips for others undertaking research with mobile devices:
Mobile phone service contracts typically include a set term of service, often a period of 24 months. Many research projects don’t run the full length of the contract period, leaving researchers to pay cancellation fees for the accounts at the end of the study. Our provider included fees at a flat market fee of $325, which was discounted by $10 for every month of service already paid through the contract. Multiply this amount by 30+ phones, and the project would pay thousands of dollars in cancellation fees. What’s the solution? Try to negotiate cancellation fees up front as you bargain with multiple service providers. Mobile service providers often say that their cancellation fees are the one thing they cannot negotiate, but it may be possible to negotiate these fees at the corporate level, rather than the project or individual account level. Negotiating cancellation fees at the corporate level will benefit any project conducted under your organization’s corporate agreement. You could also get your service provider to approve a transfer fee waiver for accounts being transferred to participants after the end of the study or to other research projects within your organization. An organizational registry of current and upcoming projects using mobile devices could help facilitate these types of contract transfers.
Service Provider Support Issues
The phones we purchased for the BreathEasy project were supposed to have been unlocked at purchase to allow us to easily download the BreathEasy application, but this was not the case when we received the phones. It ended up taking several weeks of working with the service provider to unlock the phones, and even then we sometimes had to research workarounds to get the BreathEasy app on the phones. This issue cost the project unanticipated labor and contributed to a delay in field activities. So what’s the solution? Projects involving mobile devices should get assurance from the service provider that all devices will allow third-party applications to be downloaded. If you include this stipulation in your contract, the burden of unlocking the phones will be on the service provider, not on your project staff.
For several months, we experienced problems getting the mobile service invoices routed to the correct project within our organization. At times, our project was billed for mobile service accounts that didn’t belong to us. Other times, overage charges and reimbursements from the mobile service providers didn’t reach us until months later. A good solution would be to ask your service provider to move your project’s service charges to its own sub-account (called a billing account number, or “BAN”). This allows the service provider to directly assign all bills to the project’s account number, eliminating the need for manual routing of phone invoices within an organization.
We hope these tips assist you when planning and conducting your next research study using mobile devices.