Sam wrote a blog post about the cost of SMS messages. I admire the effort, but I’m not in 100% agreement with his conclusion.
I think the goal the author was trying to make is that SMS messages are overpriced, and consumers should be outraged. To support his arguments, he compares a price per byte breakdown between a SMS message, an email message, and a printed document with thousands of characters (whether binary, hexadecimal or base64, I couldn’t tell you). Unfortunately, the comparisons seem a little weak, and a real cost breakdown between these two technologies is not fair.
Let’s take a look at 3 points the author tries to make.
1. What is the value (and the cost) of an SMS message?
A SMS message typically originates from one user’s cell phone and arrives at another user’s cell phone. People use them for quick messages that either don’t need an immediate reply, or do not require the receiver to have 100% of their attention on their cell phone. Everyone has sent one of these at one time or another: “I’ll be late for lunch”, “OMG! TTYL?”, or “I never want to see your cheating face again”.
You don’t need to boot up a PC, and you have a higher expectation that someone will notice the message quicker, because almost everyone carries their cell phone with them. These aspects of SMS are features that carry a dollar value. Twenty cents may seem high per message when the technology cost is almost zero, but technology is not the only expense by a carrier.
First and foremost, people are needed to maintain the service. That includes systems administrators, engineers, and customer support personnel. Those costs need to be in balance with the total number of SMS messages that pass through a network. Every carrier out there has already measured their own cost per SMS message, and that includes transport, personnel costs, and billing costs. If SMS isn’t profitable, people could lose their jobs, or the per message price could go up.
2. Ah, but SMS shouldn’t have any cost, because the infrastructure is already in place, right?
A per unit SMS charge could mean that you’re actually paying less for your base service. If every customer is expected to send 25 messages a month, they could reduce the base price to be competitive, knowing they’ll recover that cost with the add ons. If you send under 25 messages, the carrier hopes that the emotional teenager down the street will send 50 messages to cover your slack.
Alternatively, a carrier could reduce operating costs by offering unlimited messages for a base price, like $10 for unlimited messages; but that creates the risk that consumers would just forgo SMS altogether.
3. Apples and Oranges (Is email cheaper than SMS?)
The other aspect of this article that confuses me is the comparison between SMS and email. To put this in a better perspective, I’ll make my own argument.
If I were to fly from Minneapolis to Denver, the price of a one way ticket would be $290.23 with a flight time of approximately 2.5 hours. If I were to drive the exact same trip, my gas cost would be $180 (assuming that I can get 350 miles for every full tank of gas), and I would get there within 17 hours.
With either solution, I end up in Denver. Why does the airline in this case feel justified in charging such a higher cost? And if you think about it, that plane is going to Denver anyways, so I should be able to just ride it for free.
My comparison is a fail of epic proportions, because both methods of transportation have different operating costs. Airplanes cost more than cars, automobile gasoline has a tax for maintaining roads, flight attendants need paychecks. In both cases I’m paying different amounts of money, with different service expectations, but getting the exact same result.
The comparison between email and SMS isn’t fair because the author admits that there is no per email message cost. No ISP would ever want to deal with billing per email message, because the tracking of incoming and outgoing messages would only increase the price. You can use your bandwidth for web surfing, email, online games, or anything. SMS messaging does not offer these features.
Next, let’s discuss the idea of sending a single MP3 file (much less 2,560) over the SMS protocol. This is totally unreasonable action due to the size limits of SMS messages. SMS was never designed to transfer files, so why compare a file transfer? Most cell phone offer other methods, such as Bluetooth, or dedicated data networks for sending files. And while I’m at it, email isn’t the best protocol for file transfers either. If I had 2,560 individual emails of 4gb each, I would be looking at one mbox file of 10gb. Managing that mailbox would kill most mail clients, and probably a couple of IMAP servers as well.
Finally, the author is incensed that the person receiving the SMS message may also have to pay a surcharge. Unfortunately, he fails to point out that the recipient of the email message will very likely have an ISP charge as well.
If I’m coming across as harsh, it’s not my intention. This analysis is simply a counterpoint to the claim that text messages are expensive. Yes, they do cost a consumer money, and they probably make a profit for the carriers. I do not think this means SMS messages are bad, or exploitative.
The best way for a consumer to determine the cost of SMS messaging is to see what benefits the service gives you. If they save time, improve communication, or reduce confusion, there’s a value to that. If SMS does not do any of these, then you have the option of not using it.