Net Neutrality & What Happens to SMS

We’re inching closer and closer to the point where telecoms and ISP’s will either grab a stronger chokehold on consumers’ bandwidth and internet connectivity or effectively become dumb pipes. Large corporations like AT&T are going to continue to attempt to stay relevant in this rapidly changing tech sector, but will they succeed? Over the past few years, we’ve seen telecoms adjust their charging strategies for consumers’ changing habits. People are making fewer calls, so telecoms are finally giving us call service for next to nothing. Now consumers are using SMS less and less because of new communication infrastructures that companies like Apple are implementing into their devices (think iMessage). With the communications world moving away from voice and calling and more towards data and non-SMS texting, ISP’s are on their toes.

A dumb pipe, by the way, if you’re not sure of, is a techie’s dream, and it should be everyone else’s too. The term dumb pipe was coined to describe what Internet service providers — be it home internet (AT&T, Comcast, etc.) or from your smartphone (Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.) — provide you as far as your internet connection(s). It’s the notion that your internet connection is essentially a utility, like electricity or water. Your local electricity or water provider doesn’t care what you’re using you power or water for, just as long as they get paid, an they’ll bill you according to how much you’re using per month. ISP’s, alternatively, aren’t as disconnected with the service they provide. There are many instances in which they want to know what you’re doing with your internet connection. For legal reasons, for instance, they want to know what your internet packets contain to make sure there’s no illegal torrent downloading or sharing going on. On another hand, in AT&T Mobility’s case regarding FaceTime, they know when you’re using your iPhone’s 3G/4G connection for FaceTime calls. This is how they were able to keep people from using their iPhones to FaceTime over their data network, which forced users to only use FaceTime over Wi-Fi. That almost became a public fiasco for AT&T because they began testing the net neutrality waters with that move, initing a bit of heated debate in the tech sphere.

Nonetheless, it’s optimal for consumers if our internet connections are dumb. You pay for use, and you get it. Outside of that portion of the net neutrality realm, there’s the case of SMS. Apple’s got iMessage which is used by default on every iOS device-to-iOS device conversation. If you SMS someone’s number who has an iPhone, it’s automatically going to default to Apple’s iMessage system for the conversation, unless the person has actively disabled iMessage in Settings. iMessage, Facebook IM, Skype and other non-ISP chat mediums don’t use the same protocols as SMS. It’s simply data, just like when you access a Facebook page or video chat on Skype. The big deal here, is that if you’re “texting” habits have migrated mostly to iMessage or Facebook IM, ISP’s like AT&T and Verizon can’t charge you per message like they loved doing a few years ago. However, the ISP’s have caught on. I’m with AT&T for instance, and I bit the bullet, surrendered my grandfathered “unlimited” iPhone plan ($30 a month) and got on board with a 4GB data sare plan from them. It’s working fine, I can finally use hotspot, and FaceTime over 3G, that’s great. But here’s the thing, they don’t charge you for any minutes, nor any texting.

AT&T Mobile Share Plan Comparison

The catch here, is that we’ve moved from a standard of phone plans that don’t include any — I repeat any — “unlimited” data plans. The top two wireless providers in America, AT&T Mobility and Verizon both have not one unlimited data plan to choose from. They both now only offer these data share plans. This is good for a lot of consumers, because many will save on their monthly bills, 1) because they’re not paying for data the don’t need, because AT&T and Verizon offer more tiers (2GB, 3GB, 4GB, 6GB, 10GB, etc.) as opposed to just two (250MB & 2GB). And 2) they’re not being charged for any minutes — be it to a landline or any mobile number — nor are they being charged for text messages. T-Mobile and Sprint, however, seem to be a little more lenient with the terms of unlimited. Although the general trend for the big four wireless companies is tiered data plans.

This new world order in the wireless telecom game is a double-edged sword, it’s ok for now, but as we move into an increasingly data heavy internet age, the like of AT&T and Verizon will continue to gain leverage as they have adjusted themselves to charge consumers more effectively for data. It’s obvious that SMS is going the way of 8-track tapes and vinyl, so we’re all using data for IM-ing and instant text communication, and we’ll continue to use data for our browsing and video conferencing…and before you know it, the wireless companies will be migrating phone call protocols from POTS, to what is essentially VoIP — or all digital, over the internet data.

So in the next five years, as we progress into nothing but data packets, whose messaging medium will become the de-facto standard? SMS is nice because it’s universal. It works on virtually every phone in the world — even dumb phones — but it has some major setbacks in 2012. The SMS messaging system is almost 30, yes 30 years old, and it’s becoming more and more evident that it’s feature set is lacking. First there’s the 160 character limit. As we all know, SMS messages are limited to just 160 characters, once you’ve gone over that limit, text messages can get jumbled very easily and sometimes they’re sent out of order. Modern services like iMessage have virtually no character limit, and thus there’s no chance of message be sent out of order, it’s all just one message. Then there’s the case of SMS protocols prone to being slowed down during quick upticks in traffic. Think of incidents like Hurricane Sandy, university lockdowns, and other chaotic events can cause SMS systems to come to a slow grind. iMessage, while it can have it’s own faults, usually will work fine as long as you’ve got a decent data connection. The same goes for Skype or Facebook’s IM-ing system, while they all can have their own intermittent quirks, their downtime is usually negligible. Furthermore, third-party services like iMessage and Facebook IM allow for read receipts, typing indicators, and other more modern touches. This is all great, but the question is, which one of these services becomes the next medium for instant messaging?

iMessageWhatsApp

Most likely we’ll live in a world where we all use our preferred third-party service, and then use SMS as a backup. I think it’s safe to say that Apple’s iMessage system will not become anything like a standard for an SMS replacement. This is due to the fact that iMessage is only on iOS devices — which is only roughly half of all smartphones in the wild — and on top of that, we all know Apple will never open this system up to work on competing platforms like Android or Windows Phone. There are other stragglers out there who’ve got respectable followings. There’s Skype, which is nice, but nowhere near as widespread as iMessage. There’s also third-party app WhatsApp, whose mission is to be a direct replacement for your SMS needs. Services like Skype and WhatsApp are nice, because they are available on almost mobile platform you can think of — iOS, Android, Windows Phone, WhatsApp is even on Blackberry. However, the drawbacks to these third-party services are their populations. Compare SMS users to iMessage users, Skype users, WhatsApp users… Everyone has access to SMS if they’ve got a phone. However, not as many people are on iMessage, Skype, and even fewer probably are on WhatsApp.

Now, enter in Facebook. Think of how many people around you use Skype regularly. Now think of how many people use iMessage around you. Now think of how many people are on Facebook. It’s not even worth noting, but almost everyone is on Facebook, and therefore almost everyone has access to their IM-ing service. Facebook has made great strides in improving their instant messaging service over the past year or so. They’ve even gone as far as making a standalone app just for IM-ing. Pair that app with the fact that almost everyone has access to it on almost every mobile OS, and I think it’s safe to say that right now, Facebook has the best chance of any third-party to become the de-facto SMS replacement.

Facebook Messenger

Now, how does Facebook achieve this? Right now, I’m not exactly sure if consumers necessarily want or need a replacement for SMS. However, if there is a demand for SMS alternatives, Facebook has the best chance of becoming the widespread and most-used service. Not only is Facebook IM available on all of the Facebook apps across all of the mobile platforms, there is also a Messenger app that Facebook has produced on iOS and Android. It’s a standalone app simply for Facebook chat, but looks and feels just like an iMessage or Messaging app clone. It’s got typing indicators, read receipts, and on top of that Facebook just recently added a phone number capability much like iMessenger. The Android version of the app allows for users to post a name and the phone number attached to their phone to chat. That’s it. No Facebook account needed. This is different from iMessage in that it is based solely on your Apple account. To use iMessage you must actually sign in with your Apple ID. As many iOS users know, you can of course send and receive messages via iMessage via your Apple account email address. Whereas on the iPhone, it simply connects your phone number to that account, allowing for other iMessage users to contact you via your number which then falls back to the Apple servers for iMessage as opposed to the standard SMS network.

Attaching phone numbers to Facebook accounts and Apple ID’s makes it easier for users to replace SMS as an everyday communication medium. Instead of having to have a Facebook, WhatsApp account, or even an Apple ID, simply typing in a phone number and instantly establishing communication is a real threat to SMS. Alternatively, perhaps the majority of smartphone users are fine with SMS, especially now that carriers aren’t even charging for it. I believe SMS is a good standard for every phone to have, kind of like having call capabilities is good to have even for those who virtually never make calls. With that said, SMS is an aged technology, and for the modern consumer there are much nicer and more convenient ways to communicate via text. I think Facebook is at the forefront of that venture. With the likes of Verizon spearheading 911 capabilities to SMS services, I don’t think SMS is going anywhere anytime soon.

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