Sunday, December 28, 2008

Text Messages should be free

I have maintained that delivering a text message from me to one of my friends, or twitter for that matter, costs the Cellular network providers nothing. 160 characters per message should be easy to transmit when the Cell network is capable of transmitting millions of bytes that constitute our phone conversations. Almost every time I have this debate with someone, their point of view differs from mine; the result is always the same - since both parties don't know the internals of how the Cellular networks are provisioned, there is no conclusive proof that either of our arguments is valid. We take another swig of our respective drinks and move on to other topics.

Well, I no longer have to live knowing that I was siding with the losing argument on this count - delivering SMS messages is "practically" free for the Mobile Service providers, and they don't need to make any new infrastructural investments to accommodate for a huge spike in SMS usage by customers. This line from the linked article says it all:
A better description might be “cost carriers very, very, very little to transmit.”

For a deep-dive into why this is the case, read on...
A text message initially travels wirelessly from a handset to the closest base-station tower and is then transferred through wired links to the digital pipes of the telephone network, and then, near its destination, converted back into a wireless signal to traverse the final leg, from tower to handset. In the wired portion of its journey, a file of such infinitesimal size is inconsequential. Srinivasan Keshav, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, said: “Messages are small. Even though a trillion seems like a lot to carry, it isn’t.”

Perhaps the costs for the wireless portion at either end are high — spectrum is finite, after all, and carriers pay dearly for the rights to use it. But 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.

That’s why a message is so limited in length: it must not exceed the length of the message used for internal communication between tower and handset to set up a call. The channel uses space whether or not a text message is inserted.

Professor Keshav said that once a carrier invests in the centralized storage equipment — storing a terabyte now costs only $100 and is dropping — and the staff to maintain it, its costs are basically covered. “Operating costs are relatively insensitive to volume,” he said. “It doesn’t cost the carrier much more to transmit a hundred million messages than a million.”
I guess AT&T is pocketing the $20 I am paying for unlimited text messaging, but I know people who have paid $40 in SMS overage charges some months of the year. Cell Phone plans in the US are a total scam compared to the ones my parents use in India, calls are way too expensive, US customers get forced into buying service packages and signing multi-year contracts, and now we discover this!?! As someone said, it is time for this oligopoly to be replaced by an honest Cell Phone service provider that doesn't do its darndest to swindle the consumer out of their hard earned $.

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