To Hell with SMS Plans

Carriers’ text (SMS) messaging plans should be one of the most contested issues with technology consumers have today, but aside from a few loud shouts from the corners of the Internet, they don’t receive as much attention as is deserved. What’s even more disconcerting than charging for text messages is the tiered pricing levels at which you must choose your service. But as horrible as SMS plans and pricing are, there is a greater problem lurking behind the veil of revolution: fragmentation. 

Context for Complaining

Back in 2007, AT&T allowed its network users to select from three tiered pricing structures for text message plans: 200/mo., 1500/mo., or unlimited. While the bottom tier has morphed over the years, there has always been a cheaper, more affordable option. The original pricing structure for the above tiers, circa five years ago, was:

  • $5/200
  • $15/1500
  • $20/unlimited

Since Apple released its latest iOS version in 2011 (which included iMessage, a service that uses data bandwidth instead of cellular bandwidth to facilitate rich text messages to other iPhones/iOS/Mac users), AT&T eliminated the cheapest version. They also instituted a raise in price of the per-text message option to $0.20/message. While this it entirely unreasonable for a telecommunications/utility company to brace itself for a disruptive technology like iMessage, it’s also monstrously demonstrative of unwarranted price gouging. There is no doubt that SMS is a valuable, globalized technological standard that allows any mobile device with phone calablities to communicate cross-telco. But when you break down the data bandwidths and technology required to operate this, the pricing structure doesn’t match up. And in the face of easier, better messaging technologies that leverage speedy data pipes (let’s not forget BlackBerry Messenger, Google Voice, etc.), it becomes less forgivable to rely on older tech — and charge more for it. It’s not as if cellular bandwidth is a scarce resource; I’d wager more people are using fewer minutes on their monthly plans. And let’s be realistic: text messages are not inelastic. Or are they? 

The Numbers

Now, to put some context around this. Below is a snapshot of my text message usage since iMessage was released. 

Text Message Usage Pre- and Post-iMessage

My messaging habits didn’t change after October, so the gradual decline of message usage directly correlates to the migration of messaging people with SMS to iMessage. Obviously this migration requires the majority of your closest contacts to have iOS devices (in my case: true), but it’s still a remarkable juxtaposition. 

The Bigger Problem

Alas, SMS messaging (and its pricing model) isn’t going anywhere fast — except perhaps up in price. If anything, the introduction of iMessage, as seamless as its integration has been, will only fuel fragmentation among text message users. Those users also must continue to rely on SMS plans for iOS users to affordably message non-iOS users. 

Unless there is a grand messaging unification among mobile OS providers, or SMS technology gets an upgrade to data pipes instead of cellular ones, SMS will never go away. Instead, users will operate in silos whereby it benefits them to share the same mobile OS among families and friends to save money. For example, you could save quite a bit of money if you had an iPod Touch with a monthly data plan. You could leverage iMessage for text messages and a Skype number for voice calls (or undoubtably a soon-to-be-released Apple solution to voice over data), and eschew the constraints of cellular plan pricing from the carriers. As I’ve mentioned before, I could make a pretty penny if there was a black market for AT&T rollover minutes. 

Where My Complaint Is Valid

Regardless of the fragmentation, I still want to complain that the current SMS plans are gouging users. Half the point of iMessage was likely to reduce the monthly cost of SMS plans for iOS users (the other half being an improved experience with message synching across iOS devices, read receipts, etc.). That pricing benefit was rendered irrelevant when AT&T decided to amputate the affordable plan. Make no mistake, this was directly aimed to fuck over its own customers from saving $5-10 a month. I was planning on switching to the cheaper plan until they decided to play this damaging game. 

You’d think competition in this space would address the market’s need. I’m still waiting.