The New York Times has a piece online that’s making some waves: A blasting of cellphone operators for ripping off consumers with text messaging charges. It is, indeed, true. But it’s also late: lawmakers in Europe–where texting has always been more popular than in the US–have been looking into SMS charges for years, and have started to take some serious action.
The popularity of the Short Message Service is one of those fortuitous accidents: Though it’s evolved over time and now functions on 3G networks, and has expanded to include Multimedia Messaging, it was originally defined as part of the GSM protocol way back in 1985, as a way of sending brief messages between users. That’s where its 160 character-per-message size was dreamed up. It’s fair to say the industry at the time thought that voice calling was the single dominant function of a cellphone, and the rise in popularity of texting was a surprise. SMSs have since evolved into a powerful communication channel all of their own, allowing brief non-intrusive contact between two people (or more) with a cellphone. It’s fair to call them the most widely-used data communications system on the planet, given all the billions of cellphones in circulation.
The nefariousness of charging lots for an SMS gets worse when you learn how they’re transmitted. The text data streams ride piggyback on the standard wireless handshaking that goes on between handsets and nearby cellphone towers–sitting in a digital control channel. That’s why they’re 160 characters long: the data stream of bits has to fit into the set-up digital handshake between the service and your cellphone… a patch of data that gets sent even if you have no SMSs to send or receive. Sending an SMS is also “best availability” in terms of data priority on a provider’s network: If there’s more important traffic–basically voice calls–the SMS gets pushed down the priority queue, with no guarantee in fact that it’ll ever get to its destination.
You might then think “Okay–but with trillions of SMSs between billions of users that’s gotta cost the operator something?” And the answer is “not really.”
Lawmakers in the EU have been wise to this fact for years, applying increasingly strict regulation of the fees that service providers can charge for sending or receiving texts. Most recently, they deemed that international SMS roaming fees are way too high, and passed a law forcing European providers to slash the cost from around €0.29 to between €0.11 and €0.15. “EU citizens should be free to text across borders without being ripped off,” according to Commissioner Viviane Reding, of the EU’s Information Society and Media Commission.
The NYT expose demonstrates that when you buy SMS “packages” for your monthly contract you’re effectively buying empty, cost-free airspace, which reveals the money-grabbing consumer rip-off aspect of cellphone providers. But that shouldn’t be very surprising, should it?