Firms get the SMS message

The popularity of Short Message Service has created a rapidly growing array of third-party services, which will benefit mobile staff and managers, says Bill Pechey

A lot has been said recently about the huge numbers of messages being sent between mobile phones using Short Message Service (SMS). UK users sent one billion in January 2001, and the mobile operators aren't complaining. At 10p per message, SMS is generating about £1.2bn a year, just about enough to pay for the third-generation (3G) mobile licences over their 20-year period. Not bad for a mobile service that was essentially an afterthought.

The current popularity of SMS has also created a rapidly growing market for third-party services. For example, there are services to keep you up to date with news, financial affairs, weather forecasts and flight times. Many of these services are free and more are appearing every day. You can find large numbers of them through a Web search. Services that send email notifications via SMS are also taking off, and the inevitable charges are now starting to appear.

It's easy to understand how messages get sent from one mobile to another, but it's not so obvious what happens when you enter a message on a Web site and it magically appears on a mobile phone somewhere. In fact, all messages are transmitted to mobiles from a Short Message Service Centre (SMSC), which doesn't have to be local.

The problem is getting the message from the Web page to an SMSC. Network operators have never made it easy to connect to their SMSCs and there are no standards governing how it should be done. Each SMSC manufacturer also has a different set of protocols.

Standards bodies the 3G Partnership Project and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) are now working to improve matters. The IETF proposes that eXtensible Markup Language (XML) should be used to convey messages between Web servers and SMSCs. This would make it easier to add SMS facilities to Web servers or other Internet-connected devices. Internet service providers (ISPs) and others could resell the service to their users by setting up an SMS proxy facility and offering code to make it all work.

The result would be a rapid growth in messages from non-mobile devices, and firms would probably be attracted by the new services. For example, it would be easy to notify mobile staff of news and there would be peace of mind knowing that messages are encrypted all the way. And it will become much easier to use delivery notification services to inform senders when messages are delivered. The 3G Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) will also benefit from the use of XML, though there is much more flexibility of transmission in MMS than SMS ­ see my earlier column at the Web address below.

As always in telecoms, we have to consider tariffs. While mobile charges for voice traffic have fallen steadily over the years, SMS prices have hardly changed. It is not easy to see why this should be the case and perhaps things will change. As more users enable their Web sites for SMS services there will be increasing global competition to support SMS, so tariffs should fall.

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