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gift-open-palm.jpgApparently trying to steal the thunder of customer ire from Rogers Wireless’ ill-considered iPhone launch, Bell and Telus are trying to slip out the back door with an announcement that they’re going to be charging users extra for text messaging. To be specific, that charge is $0.15 for each incoming message you receive, whether you wanted to receive it or not.

SMS costs in Canada are already disproportionately high versus the unrealistically high costs for SMS across the entire wireless industry. This article suggests that SMS costs are, in the aggregate, 4x higher than getting data from the Hubble space telescope. Global SMS revenues are larger than the Hollywood movie, music and video game industries combined.

The quote from the Telus spokesperson is hilarious:

“The growth in text messages has been nothing short of phenomenal,” wrote Telus spokeswoman Anne-Julie Gratton in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, “This volume places tremendous demands on our network and we can’t afford to provide this service for free any more.”

The same article refers to the latest statistics from the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association that pegs the number of text messages sent in Canada at more than 45.3 million per day. According to recent reports from IEMR the number of wireless subscribers in Canada was 20.4 million in 2007, and wireless subscribers in the UK (which has roughly double the population of Canada) for the same year numbered 71.7 million. Sweden, with a third of the population of Canada’s has better than half as many subscribers. Canada is trending remarkably behind nearly every comparable western nation.

These stats are great, in that they illustrate the problem with subscriber growth that shareholders and analysts are presently appreciating. There’s clearly something wrong with the wireless business in Canada, and it’s not something that the recent spectrum auctions are likely to quickly address.

Allow me to translate Ms. Gratton’s TelecomSpeak in a way that more accurately reflects what went down in the boardroom:

“The growth in text messages has been nothing short of phenomenal,” said Telus’ Business Development Manager, “This is an unprecedented opportunity to exact greater revenue from the customer base without spending a penny on service development!”

The Canadian wireless market has been infantilised by the greed and short-sightedness of our wireless carriers and the mismanagement of our asleep-at-the-wheel regulators. Whereas (according to Wikipedia) the average user in the Philippines sends 10-12 text messages a day, doing some quick math from the stats above reveals that the average Canadian use of text messaging is far lower at 2-3 messages per day.

Still, this 45.3 million SMS messages per month business must be creating a stress on the Telus service network, you’d think. Right?

Well, if you send 45.3 million SMS messages all at the maximum size of 140 characters, you’ll get almost 6 Gigabytes in total storage volume – or, roughly the size of the hard drive I had on my IBM Thinkpad in 1999. That’s a lot of data to store (in 1972, that is). At the end of the day, this means that the entire Canadian SMS relay network has to be able to sustain about 144Kb/s of data transfer (thanks to Gersham for helping me with the math). My Mac Mini has a 1GB/s ethernet interface and is ultimately connected to a (for Canada anyway) smokin’ 30MB/s internet pipe this means that I could personally store-and-forward all of Canada’s SMS traffic myself via my Novus broadband in Yaletown, and it would have limited impact on my BitTorrenting.

SMS uses the signaling overlay path of wireless carrier networks, and from the wireless perspective SMS messages ride in the carrier byte packet. As such it costs the network exactly nothing and uses no bandwidth that isn’t already in use — traffic load is the same on the network even if no SMS messages are being transferred. The networks themselves need to invest in this infrastructure anyway, so there is perhaps an added provisioning and data processing impact created by SMS for wireless carrier network planners, but it is not substantial.

For TELUS to suggest that this traffic is in any way meaningfully impactful to their operating costs suggests that either they’re lying, or perhaps they should go back to operating mechanical switches.

This is a cash grab. Pure and simple. But then, you knew that…