Real SMS Comes to the US

The worldwide success of SMS has finally thawed US carriers’ frosty attitude to interoperator text messaging

February 28, 2002

3 Min Read
Real SMS Comes to the US

U.S. carriers are finally dropping their guard and opening up their networks to allow subscribers to send SMS text messages to subscribers on other operators’ networks. Following in the footsteps of AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless has announced that it will start to offer intercarrier text messaging in March. AT&T says Voicestream is also planning to offer the service, although Unstrung has not been able to confirm this.

Short Messaging Service (SMS) is one of the success stories of wireless data service. In the early 1990s, European carriers supported the ability to send 160-character text messages on their GSM phones almost as an afterthought. But, lo and behold, the service appealed to Euro teens, who can communicate for less than the cost of a phone call using SMS. Now there are a multitude of services available via SMS in Europe and Asia. More than 250 billion of the text messages were sent worldwide last year.

Most U.S. carriers can already support some form of two-way text messaging – or at least one-way messaging – but they have never promoted the capability and, crucially, never signed interoperability agreements to allow intercarrier "texting." When WAP services became the new big thing in 1999, simplistic SMS messaging was passed over by carriers, in favor of the ability to offer users "the Internet on their phones."

Since starting to support intercarrier SMS, AT&T has certainly found that it has driven up its data traffic. “Everything's been going great with cross-carrier SMS,” says a company spokesperson. “We launched service in November and, since then, have seen traffic more than double. Additionally, 30 percent of all originating messages from our customers have been sent to other carriers' customers.”

Cingular will be looking for a similar data traffic boost by opening up its network, and, according to AT&T, Voicestream has also announced intercarrier messaging. “While we were the first to offer this capability, both Cingular and Voicestream have announced similar service in the past week,” says the AT&T spokesperson.

However, Unstrung has not been able to find any reference to this on the Voicestream Website or elsewhere. Nobody from Voicestream had returned our calls about this issue before we went to press.Two big operators are missing from this move towards interoperability – Sprint Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.. However, Sprint has made positive noises about intercarrier SMS in the past year, so it may be ready to follow suit soon.

Increased SMS traffic in the U.S. will be music to the ears of messaging gateway providers like Ericsson AB and Logica. It could pave the way for next-generation multimedia messaging services (MMS), which allow images and audio to be sent over the phone, in the U.S. Nokia Corp. said last year that it considered MMS one of the major potential drivers of wireless data revenues. But carriers need to have SMS infrastructure and interoperability agreements in place before they can move to MMS.

AT&T was typically tight-lipped when Unstrung asked if and when the carrier plans to start MMS services. ”MMS is the next generation of SMS, and we will offer a service as part of our overall messaging strategy,” said the spokesperson “The important thing to note is that the market demand will be key in the timing for offering service.”

This rather overlooks the lesson of SMS. Users didn't know they wanted text messaging until they found it was an easy-to-use, convenient, and inexpensive way to communicate.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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