I’ve been griping about this for years: it costs cell-phone carriers effectively nothing to send text messages, yet they’re charging 10 or 20 cents a piece. Consider the size of an mp3 file vs. a text file: my This American Life downloads (which are of course efficient, low-quality files) are 27,700 kilobyte files, which comes to 470 kilobytes — or 470,000 bytes — per minute. How many bytes is a 160 character text message? I actually had to work this out, but you’d be correct to guess that in text messaging, one character still = one byte, so it’s 160 bytes.
I.e., one minute of audio costs phone companies several thousand times as much to transmit as a text message. Calling plans are of course totally arcane, but an average between pay as you go and the less expensive monthly plans seems to be about ten cents per minute of calling. So, they’re charging twice as much for the text message while it’s costing them 1/1,000th as much to send (this is actually a conservative estimate which assumes that the phone call uses a quarter of the bandwidth as the This American Life mp3). In other words, Highway 2B Robberiez.
So the obvious solution is to not send text messages? Well, not really. If we knew they cost 20 cents before, they’re obviously worth it to us to send. This is what happens in Europe: Nobody has a prepaid plan: you pay for the minutes you actually use. (In an added twist, only the person initiating the call is charged.) Text messages are charged some trivial amount, which makes a round of texts much cheaper then a short conversation.
So, I’m not sure we want a world where minutes on the phone are expensive and text messages are cheap. I guess what I’m saying is, look at your cell phone bill. If it makes sense for you to switch to a cheaper plan, do it. If you’re off-contract, consider a pre-paid plan. And if you’re sending and receiving an average of 5 text messages a day, consider whether that $30 per month is really worth it to you.