A soapbox moment about text messaging

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I’m having a bit of cognitive dissonances about text messaging. I’m not adding anything the debate which has already been dragged through the coals. Just hammering out some thoughts, and ultimately explaining the facts of a decision I’m pondering.

Let’s define a text message, shall we?

From here on out, I’m going to assume we all know what SMS means. It stands for Short Message Service and is also known as a text message. So, I can now use “SMS” throughout the rest of this post, right? Good.

SMS is essentially the barrel-scraped lowest common denominator when it comes to resources required of a cellular carrier to support. The entire service is a holdout from texting pagers that people carried before cell phones got inexpensive enough for most people to carry. So, you may ask, how little a hit on resources do SMS texts take?

In terms of computers, a single character (such as the letter A) occupies one byte of space. Not one kilobyte—one byte! A kilobyte is enough to hold 1,000 bytes (characters). For the sake of simplicity, let’s not bother with the 1,024-byte math. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of my point.

So, how big is a text message?

Best I can tell, SMS has a 160-character maximum. Assuming that’s true, a single SMS would be 160 bytes. There’s certainly some overhead to that—you’d need at least an additional 20 bytes for the two 10-digit phone numbers involved: sender and recipient.

If that overhead is kept at a minimum, a single SMS would conceivably be less than 200 bytes, and I won’t even touch on whether or not the data is compressed or the fact that most text messages don’t use the maximum number of characters.

Assuming my supposition is remotely accurate, it means that a fully loaded SMS requires one-fifth of a kilobyte—or five texts per kilobyte. Scaling this up, since 1,000 kilobytes make up a megabyte, you get 5,000 texts per megabyte!

I’ll put a little more perspective on this. A typical MP3 audio file, such as a song, often weighs in approximately one megabyte per minute. In other words, the same amount of bandwidth a three-minute MP3 song would occupy is enough to carry 15,000 text messages!

Hey, I’ll give the cellular carriers a huge benefit of the doubt. I certainly know virtually nothing of the details for this, but suppose I took for granted that these carriers have to factor a minimum packet size. In other words, no packet of information (such as a single SMS) can be smaller than the minimum. Maybe that minimum is one kilobyte. On some hard drives I’ve used, I seem to recall the minimum packet size was four kilobytes. So let’s run with that.

To make a tiny packet of information (again, such as a single SMS) meet the minimum packet size, that packet will have irrelevant padding (such as, but not exclusively, zero-value bytes) added to it. Assuming a four-kilobyte packet, we’re talking more than three and a half kilobytes of padding on top of that 200-byte text message. Making an allowance for this hefty amount of padding is good for my illustration because it allows for a lot more overhead beyond the 200 bytes that may have to accompany a single SMS—something about which I’m admittedly uninformed.

So if a single SMS now requires a whopping four kilobytes, that’s still in the neighborhood of 250 text messages per megabyte or 750 in the space of that three-minute MP3 audio file.

Okay, Lee, we get it. What’s your point?

All I’m trying to say is the same thing many people before me have said. The amount of strain a single SMS puts on a cellular network can be likened to the amount of strain a single drop of water puts on a gallon bucket. Most people could never measure it! Why, then, does it cost more to communicate the same amount of information via SMS as it does to make a phone call.

Comparing SMS to smart phone data

To further illustrate how ludicrous this is, consider that most smart phones, such as the Apple iPhone, are offered with an unlimited data plan. You pay the monthly data fee, such as $20 or $30 as it is for the first- and second-generation iPhones, respectively, and you can potentially transfer hundreds of megabytes (or more) in and out of your smart phone. Apple even specifically capitalizes on this. Thanks to the iTunes Store being available on the phone, you can instantly snag multi-megabyte songs, iPhone applications which range widely in amount of data downloaded, etc.

Clearly, data plans take a far bigger hit on cellular network infrastructure than text messaging does. Yet, without a monthly SMS plan in place, you’re charged, typically, 20 cents for every one you send or receive. If you translate that price to data service, depending whether you consider a single SMS as 200 bytes or four kilobytes, the cost is now anywhere between $50 to $1,000 per megabyte! Even if you consider the packages instead of a la carte pricing, assuming AT&T’s 1,500 texts for $10 plan, that ranges between $1.66 to $30 per megabyte. Even at only $1.66, given the way smart phones can chomp through data, that’s a lot more than I’d want to pay each month for the data! But that’s what we would be charged if data were billed at the same rates as text messaging.

Are you starting to see how idiotic SMS pricing is?

All of the big is a huge digression from what is really on my mind. Time to completely shift gears.

I want to send texts inexpensively to Canada

On AT&T (and probably many other carriers), multiply the a la carte SMS rate by 2.5 to send a text to Canada—50 cents vs. 20. This is in addition to whatever flat rate you pay, if any, for a domestic SMS plan.

Funny: it wouldn’t matter if a web page I accessed was hosted in the States or in Lithuania, the flat rate for data access remains the same.

Up until now, I’ve been considering (more like contributing) the $20 flat monthly fee for AT&T’s package to get 100 text messages outside the States—specifically, in my case, to Canada. The reason I probably won’t do that, after all, is those 100 texts would be $50 if I paid a la carte, and I probably wouldn’t use all 100 any given month. In other words, paying individually probably would cost me in the same ballpark as the flat monthly fee.

No definitive answers

Before I did the math and realized AT&T’s international SMS plan is really not all the great a deal, there was one aspect about the package that I wanted to confirm, and no one was able to definitively tell me. What I wanted to know was, how would the incoming texts from Canada be regarded once I added the international plan?

When a domestic SMS plan is purchased, texts, including incoming, are counted against your monthly allotment. My allotment is unlimited, but it wouldn’t matter if I did have a limit. My point here is that I don’t pay for individual incoming texts—they are deducted from my allotment, unlimited or otherwise. Fortunately, even if the incoming text is from Canada, it still is simply counted against the allotment. For me, it means a person in Canada can text me all they want and I am not charged any differently. (At the moment, I return texts by using the e-mail gateway. Inconvenient, but free.)

The thing that AT&T is apparently incapable of telling me is, if I add the international package, do incoming texts from Canada continue counting against my regular (unlimited, in my case) SMS plan, or do they suddenly start counting against the 100 international package? If the latter is true, I’d suddenly be paying AT&T for the privilege of only being able to receive 100 texts from Canada instead of unlimited like now, minus however many texts I send up to Canada!

I’m not sure which I find more nuts—the idea that paying more money might result in fewer free incoming texts from Canada, or the fact that AT&T is either incapable or unwilling to tell me which scenario would happen.

No lie, the last answer I got after calling on different occasions was advice to go ahead and add the plan and see how the incoming texts are handled on my next statement. The representative said she put a notation on my account about my question with the vague promise that the international SMS fee for that month would be refunded if I was unsatisfied (meaning incoming texts counted against the 100).

BZZZZZZ. Wrong answer.

The person who texts me from Canada uses a Blackberry 8830 World Edition and has unlimited texts both in and out of Canada. I don’t know the rate for that, but I understand it’s pretty affordable and, if it were offered by AT&T for iPhone users, I’d be on it in a second. As it is now, this person sends me a text, and I use the e-mail gateway to reply. This means the person in Canada can’t directly reply to my message because it originated from Telus’ e-mail gateway server and not my phone number. In short, it means both of us are basically setting up a new message each time rather than easily hitting “reply” to the previous incoming SMS.

Like I said earlier, it’s inconvenient, but it’s free, and it’s what I’ll keep doing until I find a better way. Yes, I am, indeed, considering utilizing Twitter and private messages, but this is someone who really doesn’t want to maintain a Twitter account. I haven’t abandoned this as an option yet, but I’m not holding my breath.

3 Responses

  1. How about both of you simply using mobile email? The iPhone will do that, and I assume the Blackberry will too, since that’s it’s main claim to fame. Seems like that would be a bit better than the current setup (although, unless you’re using push email, you might not get the messages right away… Although, given Google’s recent announcement of push calendar and contacts, I expect them to be offering push email fairly soon.)

  2. Lee Bennett says:

    You already provided my answer for me. No push e-mail on the Canada end and while I have push e-mail for one account, it’s work, and would rather not use it for the personal nature of the messages. As for Google, I’m not sure I’m ready to relinquish my current host of my e-mail hosting needs. This is why I’m not using me.com either.

  3. Andy McConnell says:

    SMS does not take up space on a cell network’s voice channels. Since text messages are not just tiny; they are also free riders, tucked into what’s called a control channel, space reserved for operation of the wireless network. And since they are virtually free for the carrier, text messaging fees are the biggest scam in the mobile phone market.


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