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Monday, December 29, 2008

Our DEAR SMS

TEXT messaging is a wonderful business to be in: about 2.5 trillion messages will have been sent from cellphones worldwide this year. The public assumes that the wireless carriers' costs are far higher than they actually are, and profit margins are concealed by a heavy curtain.

Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin and the chairman of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, wanted to look behind the curtain. He was curious about the doubling of prices for text messages charged by the major American carriers from 2005 to 2008, during a time when the industry consolidated from six major companies to four.

So, in September, Mr. Kohl sent a letter to Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, inviting them to answer some basic questions about their text messaging costs and pricing.

All four of the major carriers decided during the last three years to increase the pay-per-use price for messages to 20 cents from 10 cents.
The decision could not have come from a dearth of business: the 2.5 trillion sent messages this year, the estimate of the Gartner Group, is up 32 percent from 2007. Gartner expects 3.3 trillion messages to be sent in 2009.

The written responses to Senator Kohl from AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile speak at length about pricing plans without getting around to the costs of conveying text messages. My attempts to speak with representatives of all three about their costs and pricing were unsuccessful. (Verizon Wireless would not speak with me, either, nor would it allow Mr. Kohl's office to release publicly its written response.)



Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.
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