Will SMS Outlive Us All?

Short Message Service

While working for a well-known Swedish telecom equipment company in the mid 1990’s, me and my colleagues one day stumbled upon specs for a brand-new GSM service; SMS. “What an incredibly stupid idea” was our common verdict. “Nobody will ever send a Short Message to someone else by pushing two times on the 4, three times on the 7 etc…”.

We were wrong! A lot! As everyone knows, SMS turned out to be a huge success and, in some markets, even outcompeted voice as the main 2G service. From a commercial point-of-view, SMS was a goldmine for operators since the – sometimes considerable – revenue for an SMS by far exceeded the quite minimal production cost. In fact, to use signaling resources in the core and radio network to transfer small amounts of user data (i.e. a Short Message) turned out to be a very good idea.

OTT apps

Since the glory days of SMS things have obviously changed. For a while my children’s operator offered “5000 free SMS per month” as part of a subscription bundle. Nowadays I have no idea what an SMS costs. A lot of the human-to-human messaging has moved over to OTT (over-the-top) apps like WhatsApp and iMessage, and this trend is likely to continue.

Still, in some cases, SMS is used as a plan b in case human A and human B do not share the same OTT messaging app. And herein lies obviously the strength of SMS! Interoperability and the number of reachable users. Which is why different banks, airline companies, network operators, and various apps requiring two-factor authentication keep sending SMSs to us. Even when booking a haircut last week, I had to confirm the online booking with a code that was sent to me in an SMS.

3G, 4G and 5G

Today Short Message Service is not only a 2G service. We have it in 3G, in 4G (using NAS signaling or as an IMS-based service) and also in 5G where the SMSF (SMS Function) provides interworking between the 5G System and the legacy SMS service architecture.

However, there are nowadays also other 4G and 5G solutions for sending small amounts of user data in the control plane, e.g. for IoT-type of traffic. NIDD (Non-IP Data Delivery) can be viewed as a “newer, better SMS service”, and bearing in mind that mMTC (massive machine type communication) is one of the three main 5G use cases, we can expect NIDD to be used for a lot of future applications. On the other hand, there are lots of existing IoT-type of devices that currently use SMS for data transfer, and once installed they will be out there for years and years. In fact, many of these devices are connected via 2G radio which means that some operators are stuck with GSM/GPRS because they have existing long-term (e.g. 15 years) contracts with customers to carry small amounts of user data to/from their devices in the shape of SMS.

Being wrong can be painful! Or it can be a reminder of how difficult it is to predict the future – in this case for the Short Message Service. The service that I pronounced dead-on-arrival over 20 years ago, is still very much around as part of our daily lives. And there are no clear indication that SMS will disappear as a service in the foreseeable future. A bit like fax, actually!

Interested topic?
Do you want to learn more about SMS or IoT? Why don’t you check out our IoT training courses? [maxbutton id=”9″ ]

Until next time,

The Apis IP-Solutions Team

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