The SMS ripoff and what you can do about it

I started thinking about sms and instant messaging the other day. Actually I was thinking about how MTN seems to keep fleecing me for more money and/or just can’t maintain a working and reliable billing system. I started thinking about the relative cost of an sms compared to, say, the same amount of text sent as an instant message and I turned up a few interesting figures.

All that thinking persuaded me to embark on a very dangerous activity: using calculators and figures to work out what messaging costs on MTN’s network. The table below represents that effort:

SMS costings

Here are the resources I used to come up with these figures:

Now it is very possible that I got the calculations wrong (in which case, please feel free to correct me) but it seems to me that we are really paying a lot of money for sms messages compared to what it costs to send the same amount of text across a data network (even at MTN’s R2,00 per MB for data).

None of this is news though. Mxit’s success is due largely to the cost of messaging across a data network. At the same time, it is a good reason to start exploring instant messaging or similar solutions on your mobile device. Many people are already doing just that and are using instant messaging applications like Fring and, my preference, Nimbuzz which support multiple instant messaging services instead of good old fashioned sms messages. Heck, you can even use Fring or Nimbuzz to make VOIP calls, cutting your voice telephony costs on mobile networks too!

Of course those kids and their Mxit have been sticking it to the networks for a while now. Perhaps we should follow their lead?

Update: Saul Kropman just pointed out this article which reveals just how little sms messages actually cost networks.

Update 2: I read the NY Times article properly after my last update and realised just how much the networks take advantage of their customers with sms services. Andrew Glanville expressed the main point quite nicely in a comment on Facebook:

Glanville comment.png

Image credit: Text Message by licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 2.0 license.



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  1. palesa08 avatar

    I decided a long time ago that I would use whatever means necessary to spend very little via network providers. For years now I've been using IM (MSN) on my mobile to catch up with friends, even before Facebook (mobile). It also meant that I didn't have to make as many voice calls.

    Right now I'm encouraging people I chat to regularly to use push email as I do. In this way I can write as much (or little) as I want and get the message instantaneously. Of course I haven't completely abandoned SMS as it's unavoidable… for now.

  2. 6000 avatar

    If I wanted to use MXit, I'd… use MXit.
    It's all very well suggesting alternatives like VOIP, but then who pays for the bandwidth?
    And whoever you're messaging also has to be on the same program for it to work well.

    Agree with your calculation that sms's (if considered as raw data) are expensive, but you need to provide a better alternative if you're going to get anywhere with this campaign.

  3. pauljacobson avatar

    Firstly, this isn't a campaign, just making the point about how expensive sms messages are. I am certainly going to make more of an effort to IM more and sms less where possible.

    As for people using the same applications, that isn't true. All you need is a mobile device that supports whichever instant messaging service you want to use. Nimbuzz and Fring support GTalk, Jabber, MSN, Yahoo!, AIM, Skype and many more services. There is also the added benefit of continuity when you switch to a desktop IM application. The conversation continues there too.

  4. abaranov avatar

    MTN have a clause in their terms and conditions that if you use their network to bypass their services then they will charge you a premium rate for data which is about R23/M. They do this for Skype and have threatened to do it for MXiT but have not implemented it AFAIK for MXiT. Even so, with your dubious maths and mine added on, you'd still get about 100 MXiT messages per SMS.

  5. pauljacobson avatar

    I haven't checked MTN's terms but that doesn't surprise me at all. Classic protectionism rather than taking advantage of new technologies to provide a better, cheaper and more appealing service. This reminds me of the Mesh Potato concept that I found out about at a TEDx event a little while ago. It is geared at bypassing the telcos in a big way:“ rel=”nofollow”>

  6. I’ve been unfaithful and avatar

    […] using instant messaging applications on my Nokia N97 a little more (I’m a late bloomer) after my realisation just how expensive sms/texting is compared to IM messages and I have installed both Nimbuzz and Fring on my phone. I spent some time flipping between the two […]

  7. Is a BlackBerry the best produ avatar

    […] sms’ing each other and switched to Google Talk instant messaging instead (free for her and a lot cheaper for me). I’m not too sure what the parameters are but free on-device data is pretty appealing in […]

  8. […] works on virtually every mobile phone although an SMS costs orders of magnitude more than an equivalent data message. GTalk is Google’s branded implementation of a messaging service running on XMPP but I just […]

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