What’s up with text messages?

cell phone 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.

Image: IamSAM

4 thoughts on “What’s up with text messages?

  1. Hahaha, like you say, “Highway 2B Robberiez.” Seeing as how relatively quick, easy, and convenient it is to send them texts back and forth, I guess they feel like, ya know, why not gouge these mofos on these texts if they’re gonna send them anyway. I wish the plan I had was still up for grabs; I got something with Sprint with unlimited texts, long distance, roaming, internet/data and I only throw ‘em $35/month. Sheeeit, if I had to pay that $0.20 a text, all them millions of texts I send a day, they would’ve had me thrown out the door and rolled well off into the street.

  2. I have wondered that.. I think the solution will not be regulation, in this case, but market competition. MetroPCS already has a hell of a base of users here in Southeast Florida and other covered urban areas, and they just include unlimited text with most combinations of plan options. They may not always be the cheapest option, but there’s no way to unexpectedly wind up with a high bill. Verizon and AT&T (with the iPhone) have also been running some unlimited plans, but none have yet been quite as favorable as Metro’s.

Comments are closed.