NYT: Text Messages Are an Even Bigger Ripoff Than You Thought

Illustration for article titled NYT: Text Messages Are an Even Bigger Ripoff Than You Thought

We all know that text messaging is overpriced, but the NYT has pulled back the technological shroud to find out that the prices aren't just bad, they're practically extortionate.


The article goes into depth about how text messages are transmitted. In short, texts are unsurprisingly transmitted between towers over the main, wired network in the same way as cellular data, a portion of the journey that, considering the tiny amount of information in a 160-character text, costs very close to nothing.

Surely then, the carrier incurs costs to transmit the messages from towers to handsets. After all, this is the wireless part of the journey, and wireless costs lotsa $$$, right? No:

Text messages are not just tiny; they are also free riders, tucked into what's called a control channel, space reserved for operation of the wireless network.

That's why a message is so limited in length: it must not exceed the length of the message used for internal communication between tower and handset to set up a call. The channel uses space whether or not a text message is inserted.


You read that right: for carriers, sending a text message from an extant wireless tower to your handset is more or less free. If it's any consolation, the article also mentions that the Senate Antitrust Committee is kind of looking into the matter, so we may see relief (or even retribution) within the next 10-40 years. [NYT via BB Gadgets]

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Um, since when did bandwidth become free? It is still a supply and demand issue.

Before people get their panties in a bind over what I'm going to say, I will agree that text messaging is overpriced. The reason it is overpriced is not because of the size of the messages, but because of the relative time insensitivity of a text message.

Another way to visualize how text messaging is transmitted is to think of it like closed captioning on a TV. Closed captioning is shoe-horned into the space between frames.

There is only a fixed amount of control channel bandwidth. Suggesting that sending small messages over a smaller portion of the overall cellular bandwidth costs nothing is inaccurate. In all likelihood, it requires more overhead relative to the payload than call data, contrary to what the article suggests.

Now, the reason I think they're overpriced is because of the relative insensitivity of text messages to latency. You're not going to realize if a text message gets to you some fractions of a second, or even seconds later than you expected. Now, you can bet the farm on people being pissed about service and call quality issues arising from network congestion and latency issues.

Personally, I really don't care if they treat my precious text messages like insignificant garbage, as long as my calls are essentially guaranteed to be completed. Additionally, I don't mind that they make some money off trying to use their bandwidth to its full potential. (even if it is a killing)

Put the telecoms up against the oil companies and it's apparent that they're not really fleecing anyone.

There really is no winning with some of you people. The same people that will complain about the price of text messages, are the same people that will complain about an "excessively sized" shipping container. When a cellular company uses their excess air (recycling bandwidth) to make a buck, they'll still complain.