S.O.S. for SMS: Never pay for text messages again

We love to text. We just hate paying for it.

First, with apologies to Celine Dion, let’s talk about love: ouraddiction to texting is a global phenomenon.Canadians send a staggering 199 million text messages per day,according to the Canadian Wireless TelecommunicationsAssociation (CWTA). A third of Americans surveyed recently byTeleNav said they’d rather give up sex for a week than have no accessto their mobile phones. In northern Italy, the bishop of Modena was soconcerned about the SMS addiction of the town’s youth that he imploredthem to give up texting on Fridays during Lent in 2009.

“Detox from the virtual world and get back in touch with (yourselves),”Monsignor Benito Cocchi beseeched them.

There’s certainly nothing virtual about the deep impact texting canhave on our wallets, however. And that’s where the, ahem, hate comesin. Want evidence of how passionate Canadians are about the cost oftexting? Just days after Telus Communications Co. and Bell Mobility Inc. unveiled plansin 2008 to start charging 15 cents per incoming text message (inaddition to existing charges for outgoing texts), over 24,000 peoplesigned an online petition and over 28,000 joined a Facebook groupprotesting the charges. The collective vitriol worked and both carriersdumped the proposed charges.

Canadians have an international reputation as mild-mannered, but we getbrash when it comes to paying for texts. After all, it costs cellphonecompanies just a third of a cent to transmit one text message – butthey charge most of us 15 cents to send it, according to University ofWaterloo professor Srinivasan Keshav. That’s a price markup of about4,900 percent.

Before that boils your blood any further, here are some ways not to paywhen it comes to texting.

What it costs
There are three major national wireless carriers Canada and all offermonthly package deals for unlimited SMS. Rogers Wireless Inc. charges $20 amonth for unlimited texting or 15 cents per individual message. At BellMobility it’s $15 per month for unlimited texts and 15 cents perindividual text. Unlimited SMS at Telus costs you $15 each monthand 20 cents for single use texting. (For this story, all nationalcarriers required us to input what province we resided in to getpricing, so all rates are as quoted for a customer residing in Ontario.)

Since there are several other wireless carriers in the Canadian marketnow, we’ll only take a snapshot look at a few of them. Newer entrant Wind Mobile only covers Vancouver,Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa. Its SMS costs 15 centsper text, or is offered unlimited with other services in bundles thatcost $15 to $45 per month. Mobilicity covers Toronto,Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and doesn’t charge for individualtexts. Instead, it only offers unlimited SMS as part of service bundlesthat cost $25 to $45 per month.

Although Virgin Mobile Canada has limitedor no service in parts of Canada such as Manitoba or western Ontario,it says its 4G network covers 96 percent of Canada’s population base.

Like Mobilicity, Virgin doesn’t charge for individual texts, since allSMS is offered unlimited as part of service bundles that range from $30to $100 per month. Of course, the rates for all of these carriers arefor texting in North America only, so you get dinged extra for longdistance SMS unless it’s part of a bundle.

From your computer
An easy way to send free texts is from your Mac or PC. For example, youcan send free SMS from the Web portals at Rogers Wireless, BellMobility and Telus Mobility, but the recipients must be cell phonecustomers of those companies. The downside is you have to know whichwireless carrier your recipient uses for service. Who remembers whetherGrandma is on Fido or cousin Walt uses Koodo? If you have to call oremail them to ask which carrier they use, you might as well just tellthem or email them whatever the heck you were texting about in thefirst place.

There are countless other Web sites out there that allow you to sendfree texts from your computer to your friends’ cell phones, such as TextCanada or freetxt.ca.But again, you have to know their wireless carrier. There are othercaveats to beware of with these sites, and we’ll list them at the endof this story.

You don’t have to know the mobile service provider of friends andfamily to send them free texts from your computer via MSNMobile Messaging — and hey, they don’t even have to have anMSN account! Sounds good. Once you’ve signed into MSN’s mobilemessaging page, put in the mobile cell number of your recipient andtype away. But you can only text people who use U.S. wireless carriersAlltell, Cingular, Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon — not so good if allyour text destinations are north of the 49th parallel. A search forfree MSN texting to Canadian cellphone carriers came up empty.

Freebies with a twist
Some free SMS sites offer up a neat twist, like OhDon’tForget,which lets you send a free text reminder (maybe “Pick up milk” orperhaps “Look into free text sites”) to someone at a time and date youprogram into the site. To get all fancy, like creating contact lists orrecurring reminders, it’ll cost you $4.95 a month or $47.50 a year (a20 per cent discount off the monthly price) if you sign up for premiumservice.  

Smartphone SMS savings
A shadow is looming over the existing pay-for-use SMS cash cow nowenjoyed by cell carriers, and it’s coming from smartphone and socialmedia apps that bypass the traditional texting model altogether.

You can send and receive free texts via the textPlussmartphone app on your iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Androidphone or tablet. The textPlus app has exploded in popularity, with 50million downloads since it was launched in 2009. The service makes itsmoney through sponsored ads, but you can shell out a one-time fee of$3.99 to get an ad-free version of textPlus.
Now textplus is targeting Canada by giving away free phone numbers(provided to textPlus by VOIP service provider Iristel) dedicated tofree textPlus messaging within North America. Since this dedicatednumber with textPlus service is fully connected to the traditionalphone system, you can exchange free texts with any cellphone orInternet connected device in the U.S. and Canada, not just with othertextPlus app users. The phone numbers can be downloaded for free withthe textPlus app from the Canadian iTunes app store.

BlackBerry users can already send each other free messages over BlackBerry Messenger, of course.Apple Inc.’s recently unveiled iMessage works the same way,allowing iOS users to trade free messages with each other between anyiOS devices, meaning you can send messages from your iPhone to someoneelse’s iPod touch or iPad.

Facebook Inc.’s new Messengerapp for iPhone and Android smartphones delivers messages toanyone who is your Facebook friend or is in your mobile phone’s contactlist. Unlike BBM or iMessage, the Facebook app works across more thanone operating system. This trend has cell carriers worried about thefuture of regular pay-per-use SMS services.

“(Smartphone) customers could elect not to pay for texting assmartphones and third-party applications become pervasive,” UBSInvestment Research warned in a recent report.

The bottom line
Here are some factors to consider – and questions to ask — when you’relooking into free text services:
•    country availability (is it free onlywithin Canada or worldwide?)
•    interoperability (can you only SMS forfree with others who use the same app, device, OS or service provider?)
•    is there a limit to the number ofcharacters per free text message? (From the Bell Mobility Web portalthe limit is 140.)
•    are the free texts sent from your phonenumber even though you used a computer? This is the case with some appsor providers.
•    do you have to know the cellphonenumber of the recipient in order to send the free texts, even if you’resending SMS to their computer, laptop or tablet?
•    though texting is free for you, doesthe recipient get charged a lot, especially if they’re outside Canada?
•    does recipient have to use an accesscode to receive the text?
•    have other users reported gettingspammed after using it?
•    do you have to do a survey or join somekind of membership service to send free texts? If so, what are the longterm implications?   

Christine WongChristineWong is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow her on Twitter,and join in the conversation on the IT BusinessFacebook Page.

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Christine Wong
Christine Wonghttp://www.itbusiness.ca
Christine Wong has been an on-air reporter for a national daily show on Rogers TV and at High Tech TV, a weekly news magazine on CTV's Ottawa affiliate. She was also an associate producer at Report On Business Television (now called BNN) and CBC's The Hour With George Stroumboulopoulos. As an associate producer at Slice TV, she helped launch two national daily talk shows, The Mom Show and Three Takes. Recently, she was a Staff Writer at ITBusiness.ca and is now a freelance contributor.

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