Wireless operators love consumers. Consumers are bottomless wells of continuing revenue, boosting the operator's ARPU (average revenue per user) from text-messaging fees, ring-tone and game downloads, and now music and video. Businesses, on the other hand, are a pain.

Except for giant enterprises, a business delivers lousy ARPU. Businesses want detailed paper billing grouped by division or department. They're slow to pay because that's just the way business is done. They want premium services, such as e-mail, which are tough for operators to maintain. They expect add/change orders to be processed immediately. They want choice in devices, the freedom to switch operators, responsive human support, and the ability to deal face-to-face instead of through consumer channels. They make more use of long distance and roaming, services that operators must bundle in order to keep competitive.

Huge enterprise sales make the extra cost and effort worthwhile, but if a business isn't buying hundreds of phones, device manufacturers defer to operators instead of dealing direct, and operators won't budge from their published rates. That's why 3G services are so far aimed more at consumers.

Smaller businesses - operators could care less
For the smaller businesses, "non-enterprise business accounts", operators are developing ways to maximise ARPU. They're reworking service plans to make all voice minutes, not just daytime minutes, more expensive in plans that focus on daytime access. As opposed to consumer plans, which are loaded with giveaway minutes, business plans are prepaid metered services with the first batch of minutes sold at a moderate discount.

Operators are also boosting business account ARPU by restricting access to data services. Some operators used to compete on data service, even offering unlimited service for a fixed fee, but data plans that offer more than the limited browser of a consumer phone, are either expensive or metered.

Operators could care less
Because the revenue brought in by business wireless customers is miniscule compared with consumer revenue, operators have no incentive to compete for business customers on rates, devices, or services. No competition means there's no pressure to upgrade infrastructure for services such as high-speed data, which consumers seldom use, and there's no downward pressure on prices.

But they like the mobile professionals
Yet operators are finding ways to wring more ARPU out of businesses. Higher-end devices such as BlackBerry, Pocket PC, Symbian Series 60 (especially Nokia), and Treo phones and handhelds are catching on among a new class of subscribers called mobile professionals. These mobile-pro devices are much more profitable than throwaway phones.

What's more, third-party vendors such as Nokia, Research In Motion, and Seven Networks are shifting the technical burden of managing business services - including device management, e-mail, security, and Internet access - onto subscribers, leaving operators with a lot less work to do for business customers. They'll be overjoyed when a business account requires no more setup and hand-holding than a consumer account does.

Read our reviews of BlackBerry Enterprise Server and GoodLink for more on this.

Be independent, and force the good deals to come
That day will come. Some operator will eventually break from the pack and go after mobile professionals and businesses with attractive service plans that make daytime minutes and data access cheaper than the present market standards.

Until then, the best strategy for customers is to make it easy to switch. Consider buying devices at full price instead of going for a contract. Even though it costs more, paying month-to-month gives you the freedom to switch service plans or operators at will. If all business customers did that, it would force competition among operators, who will do anything to convert month-to-month customers to contracts.

Furthermore, ask that mobile-pro devices be delivered to you unlocked - capable of moving from one operator to another - but be aware that even an unlocked phone won't work on an incompatible network.

And finally, if you can afford it, set up a behind-the-firewall mobile server that handles messaging, synchronisation, tracking, management, and Internet access so that you won't be dependent on an operator for these services. If you follow this strategy, when competition finally comes to the mobile market, you'll be ready to go where the value, speed, and coverage are best.