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Monday, 8 January, 2001, 16:28 GMT
The medium, the message and the money
Typing text into a phone BBC
Text message via mobile is more popular than ever
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

The popularity of mobile text messaging is forcing Britain's network operators to change the way they charge each other to pass the data around.

To cope with the boom in text messaging mobile phone firms will soon start charging each other for each message they pass to a rival network.

But despite the change in pricing the operators say consumers won't be asked to pick up the bill.

Telecommunications watchdog Oftel says it is keeping an eye on the changes to ensure consumers are not exploited.

Telephone text

It's well known that the short messages that can be sent via GSM mobile phones can send are hugely popular. It is estimated that at the end of 2000 15 billion of the short text messages were being sent every month.

But the boom in SMS is bringing problems for the mobile phone companies who are re-writing the price list for carrying the messages to cope with demand.

"Originally it was a flat fee for a fixed volume of messages," said Neil Bent, marketing and PR manager for One2One, "now we're moving to an easier system of a rate per message."

From next month all the mobile phone operators will start charging rivals 3p for every text message they pass to that network.

Although Mr Bent said this could produce "winners and losers" if consumers on some networks receive more messages than they send but he didn't think this would mean phone owners paying more. He added that One2One had no plans to change the price it charges to transport SMS messages.

The changes could impact the virtual mobile phone firms such as Virgin and Sainsbury's that piggy back on the existing systems and are looking for ways to win customers.

When contacted by News Online spokespeople for the other networks said they didn't think that the charging change would lead to higher prices. Most networks currently charge 10p per message.

Cash crop

A spokeswoman for Oftel said it knew that the charging changes were imminent and it was currently investigating what this would mean for consumers. She added that because BT Cellnet and Vodafone have significant market power they are obliged to let it know when they are about to change prices.

The watchdog has yet to hear from the two biggest operators but the spokeswoman said it is keeping an eye on the situation to ensure consumers do not suffer.

The changes could effect the companies such as Lycos that currently offer free SMS messages.

There are already big differences in the prices networks across Europe charge to send SMS messages and some companies offering message based services may be tempted to send them on a more circuitous route that takes advantage of lower charges elsewhere in Europe.

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