The “most emailed” story in the NY Times today is about the prices and costs of sending text messages from a mobile phone. Mobile phone companies charge an arm and a leg for these–in terms of markup on costs it has to be the single most lucrative service they offer. US carriers charge 20 cents per text, and UK carriers charge 10p for pay-as-you-go text messaging, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider how little data they’re actually carrying.
Text messages are limited to just 160 characters, which can be encoded into just 140 bytes. To give you an idea of just how little that is, I compared it to the size of the web-version of the NY Times story linked above. Just the basic HTML (i.e. no images) is 89,986 bytes (or about 88 KB). That’s about 642 text messages, which is more than my monthly allowance. Including images, this figure jumps to 858,333 bytes, or 5,360 text messages, more than I send in several years. On my iPhone, my monthly plan includes unlimited Internet data, and I can download the NY Times article (over the relatively poky GPRS connection) in about 20 seconds. Yet my plan only includes 500 text messages: an amount of data that could be transmitted in a second over standard connections.
A space scientist at the University of Leicester calculated that sending text messages cost more per byte than data from the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s all to create the illusion of scarcity so the carriers can keep charging their exorbitant fees. I remember seeing signs in India for text messaging at 0.08 Rupees per text, about 2 tenths of a cent. This means US carriers charge 100 times more for their text messages.
The NY Times article goes into a little more technical detail to explain that text messages are actually packed into what’s called the control channel, used to send instructions back and forth from handset to cell towers. These channels get used whether there are text messages or not, so an increase in volume adds little to operating costs. The messages don’t appear on the high-bandwidth channels used to transmit voice, further supporting the conclusion that text message pricing has nothing to do with the actual costs of carrying the data.
Fortunately, as the NY Times article explains, Herb Kohl, the chairman of the Senate antitrust subcommittee has taken the first steps in attempting to get the carriers to account for their behavior, and several lawsuits have been filed accusing the companies of price fixing. All I have to say is, “about time.”