SMS Long Code Vs Short Code for Texting in the US – Dispelling the Myths

The SMS Long Code has hit a level where its adoption rate is significant enough to get attention from Short Code providers. When searching for information about the Long Code you will find plenty of “opinions” for and against its use from providers of both technologies.

As a veteran of 25 years in the telecommunications industry and having worked within both the wireless and landline sides of the industry, I will do my best to present the facts without prejudice and let you the reader decide what you think is right and what is best for your situation.

I will start with what the Long and Short codes are, and a brief history on how they evolved.

Short and Long Code Background

Short Code

The Short Code was created by the primary cellular carriers, CTIA, Neustar and a handful of others in 2003 as a solution for carriers to handle the higher volume, more bursty A2P (Application to Person) text messaging traffic. P2P (Person to Person) text messaging would be handled through standard 10 digit phone numbers. The Short Code was created as a 5 or 6 digit number that is leased on a monthly basis for higher volume A2P traffic at a cost of $500 or $1000. Numbers deemed “common” are $500/month and vanity numbers are $1000/month.

Once a Short Code is obtained the lessee then has to submit to the carriers a quite comprehensive plan outlining how the code will be used. This is usually done through a handful of aggregators that work with all the carriers.

Neither the Short nor Long Code escape the transactional charges that are applied to each message sent and received. The transactional costs to the end user can range from $.02 to $.05 with the Long Code usually being less expensive than the Short Code.

Long Code

The Long Code is a 10 digit telephone number that has been enabled for text messaging. Until 2003, the Long Code was the only way text messaging was transmitted because the traffic was all P2P. There is a lot of controversy over using the Long Code for A2P traffic in which I will discuss later.

For now, there are two flavors of the Long Code, and it is important when reading articles to identify “prejudice” opinions. It would be equally horrible to commit your company to a bad idea as it would to omit something that makes sense.

Reputable companies such as ILEC’s, CLEC’s, Virtual Telephone Service Providers, Cable Companies, ASP’s and others I may have missed, can use the Long Code for text messaging. I will label these companies as legitimate, reputable users or potential users of the Long Code, but will again cover the controversy within this later.

The second flavor of the Long Code will often be referred to as Grey Route numbers. It is a loosely used term, rarely clarified and often used as propaganda to create confusion in the competitive Short Code/Long Code debate. It is most often associated with companies/people who are trying to get around ethical use of the Long Code.

The concerns around Grey Routes are their use for questionable applications, such as spamming (sending messages to someone who has not asked for it, ie… “opted in”). This is usually executed by companies setting up banks of SIM cards, purchased from a mobile carrier and used to blast out unsolicited text messages to many people at once. Because it is coming from what appears to be a cell phone it looks like P2P text messaging, when in reality they are just masking what they are truly doing.

It is called a ‘grey route’ because it is simulating an individual users (P2P) account, however it could be sending out thousands of messages at a time and will slip through the cracks until reported.

Businesses who are approached to work with a mobile marketing company that suggests or conducts their business through Grey Routes should realize the potential risks of losing their money and more importantly the potential concerns for promoting a product through spamming.

The cost for a Long Code is simply a feature charge on top of the regular monthly cost of a phone line. Costs for the additional feature should be in the low 10’s and never 100’s or 1000’s.

The Issues

Both the Short and Long Code have supporters and both have valid points to support their opinions.

Short Code providers defend the right to block 10 digit NANP (North American Numbering Plan) numbers enabled with SMS because they deem any messaging traffic from a 10 digit number, sent to multiple people at once, or being sent at rates faster than someone can type, is spam and therefore will block it.

In a recent Mobile Marketer article, Jay Emmet, General Manager of OpenMarket, a leading aggregator for Short Codes said – “Any organization that sends an unsolicited text message to a consumer is in violation of the “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003″. One of the key concerns is establishing and maintaining consumer protection. With Long Codes or grey routes, an unscrupulous content provider can send unsolicited SMS to a mobile subscriber, using unauthorized carrier access.”

This is a good example of a statement made about Long Codes that was said for one of two purposes. Either Mr. Emmet doesn’t understand that Long Codes can be deployed through non-grey routes by legitimate, respectable phone companies, which he does clarify by calling them “unscrupulous content providers” or he is labeling Long Codes and Grey Routes one in the same. Maybe he is doing both but lumping together the reputable companies with the spammers, of which no one stands behind spammers from either of the Long or Short code supporters, is an injustice for the reputable content providers and the businesses who would truly benefit from the Long Code.

One of the more challenging issues of the Short Code is it’s unnecessarily costly and there are many approvals to go through, sometimes taking up to six months before it can even be used. Short Code supporters say the system was created this way to protect the end user from annoying and unwanted text message solicitations.

Long Code providers that fall into the reputable category, as I discussed before, feel the text messaging market is monopolized and the wireless carriers illegally block legitimate traffic in fear of it being spam.

Even the reputable Long Code providers shun the use of a 10-digit phone number through a grey route and strongly look down upon any company sending unsolicited text messages to subscribers.

Other issues expressed by Long Code providers are how inter-carrier messaging decisions are made by associations and companies that have a vested interest in their own companies. It is felt that these decisions and actions create barriers for fair competition and ultimately hurts the small business and the consumer.

The Controversy

The companies and associations that control the Short Code are very powerful and are financially very strong as a group. In 2003, the introduction of the Short Code was an example of their power.

The new rule said SMS over a 10 digit number that appeared to be A2P texting would be blocked and all companies sending A2P texting moving forward would have to start paying a monthly lease for a Short Code and a transactional fee for sent and received text messages.

In a class action suite filed by a reputable messaging company which makes its living with solutions for both the Short and Long Codes, filed 4/5/2012 against the Short Codes governing body companies, to list a few: AT&T mobility LLC, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp., T-Mobile USA, Inc., US Cellular, CTIA-The Wireless Association, Syniverse Technologies, Inc., Nuestar, WMC Global, Inc. and others, here labeled “Carrier Defendants”, it is stated –

“The Carrier Defendants conspired to set up systems under which persons transmitting A2P SMS could not use inexpensive ten-digit telephone numbers, but were forced to use common short codes (CSC’s) – five digit (and later six-digit) numbers at materially higher lease and transmission charges with additional fees for connectivity and content review, all of which resulted in substantial overcharges to persons transmitting A2P SMS and materially higher revenues for the Carrier defendants and other defendants.”

Summing that up, the Class Action law suite is claiming the Carrier Defendants have violated Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act of 1890, a landmark federal stature on competition law that prohibits certain business activities that reduce competition in the marketplace (anti-competitive) and requires the US Federal government to investigate and pursue companies and organizations in violation.

Interesting as well, in a closed meeting, as recent as last falls CTIA show in San Diego, CA, the CTIA put it in writing to prohibit A2P messaging using the Long Code in their new inter-carrier text messaging guidelines.

My Take on It

The Short Code was created in a time when text messaging was just starting to catch on. If one keeps in mind a statistic published in 2003 from the CTIA showing monthly volumes of text messages sent in the US were reported to be 1.2 Billion The CTIA’s latest data shows that same monthly number at a whopping 193.1 Billion. That is a 16,092% increase in text messaging volume.

With that said, it is safe to say times have changed. During this time, consumers and companies have gone through an educational and adoption process with text messaging. How it used, who it is used by, and more importantly what the consumer wants out of text messaging has all changed.

I agree that the consumer needs to be protected, but assuming that consumers would tolerate spam is an insult to our very own text messaging education we provided them during adoption and more importantly an insult to the consumer.

Grey routes used for unapproved purposes should not exist and those who choose that route should be shut down and I am sure this process would happen quickly because the average consumer won’t tolerate it, nor pay for it.

What ever the evolution of messaging follows it will only be a band-aid until the next technology comes around. The companies who can adapt in a “fair playing field” are the ones I will be writing about in another 9 short years, the amount of time it took text messaging to grow by 16K percent.

Short Code providers need to let go of their strong hold and realize the industry has changed. If they aren’t aware of these huge changes, maybe they should read this article

Businesses have a legitimate need and right to use both the Long and Short codes but Long Codes can’t support these businesses because traffic will be blocked by the carriers.

Example: A College that needs to send out an emergency alert message to their students, technically, based on the way the rules of inter carrier message are written, cannot use a Long Code because it will either be blocked or throttled to a speed to slow in the time of an emergency.

Overall, such a great job has been done building the communications infrastructure in United States and it should be used to its fullest potential. In order to do so, we can not focus on yesterdays needs. We need to focus on today’s needs and how to meet the needs of the future.