The rising cost of texting

Text message prices have risen as quickly as gas prices at the pump over the past two years. What gives?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

If you thought gas prices were rising too quickly, check out what's been happening to text messaging.

Since 2005, rates to send and receive text messages on all four major carrier networks have doubled from 10 cents to 20 cents per message. This percentage of increase is on par with similar price hikes at the gas pump as crude oil prices skyrocket. In 2005, Americans paid on average about $2.27 per gallon for gas compared with more than $4 a gallon today.

Last October, Sprint Nextel was the first to introduce the new price of 20 cents per text message. AT&T and Verizon Wireless soon followed with their price hikes going into effect this spring. And this week Engadget reported that T-Mobile USA will match the other big three wireless operators in jacking up SMS texting rates to 20 cents per message. The price increase goes into effect August 29.

On Tuesday, AT&T announced that texting will cost new iPhone users more than it had previously. The old iPhone plan included 200 text messages in the $59.99 voice and data plan. But plans for the new iPhone 3G that hits store shelves next week will cost $5 extra for 200 text messages, bringing the total price of a comparable voice and data plan on the new iPhone 3G to $74.99 a month. (This is with the $69.99 "Nation 450" bundle plus $5 for the 200 text messages.)

The new wave of price hikes comes just one year after all the major carriers raised individual text messaging rates from 10 cents a message to 15 cents per message.

So what's with the 100 percent price hike in two years? Well, there's nothing that has changed in terms of the cost associated with delivering this service. In fact, text messages cost carriers very little to transmit. And when compared with what carriers charge for transmitting other data services, such as music downloads or surfing the Web, the text messaging rates seem exorbitant.

Carriers limit the number of characters that can be transmitted in a text message to 160 characters. Each character is about 7 bits, which works out to a maximum of about 140 bytes of data per text message. This is peanuts compared with the size of sending or receiving an e-mail or downloading an MP3 song over a cellular network.

One blogger has done the math. If the same pricing was applied on a per-byte basis to downloading one 4MB song it would cost the user almost $6,000 to download a single song via SMS texting.

One can easily assume that the mark-up on a text message is several thousands times what it actually costs carriers to transmit this little bit of data, considering that mobile operators are only charging $30 to $40 a month extra for mobile data plans that offer 5MB worth of data per month.

The reason that carriers are charging so much for text messages is because they can. Even at 15 cents and 20 cents a pop, people are willing to pay for it. The carriers are also trying to get consumers to sign up for text messaging packages and unlimited plans that vary in price from $5 a month extra for 200 messages to $20 a month extra for unlimited texting on AT&T's network, for example.

The massive price markup on texting and the growing popularity of texting have resulted in huge profits for mobile operators. Verizon reported that for the first quarter of 2008, its wireless customers spent $11.94 a month on data services, an increase of about 33 percent from a year earlier. The carrier didn't break out what percentage was spent on text messaging versus other services, but there's a good guess that a lot of the additional revenue from data came from texting. In total, mobile data accounted for about 20 percent of all wireless sales for Verizon's first quarter.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like consumers have much legal recourse for getting carriers to adjust their pricing to a more reasonable rate. There's nothing illegal about charging as much as the market will bear for any service.

But that doesn't mean that consumers like it. What do you think about the high cost of texting? Are you feeling the pinch in your wallet yet? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the "Talk Back" section below.