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Pigs in space! The price of SMS

A friend of mine, an absurdly, almost frighteningly smart guy I will name if he gives me permission, did a really interesting bit of calculating a while back.

During news coverage of a Space Shuttle mission to make repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope a gathering of  geeks chatting about the Hubble were all, coincidentally, lamenting the cost of SMS (text) messaging on our cell phones. I think the connection was that while we were discussing these things, we were also doing some actual work and evaluating the pricing of a few hosting providers for a project we were working on.

My oh-so-brilliant friend did some calculations on the published costs of building, flying and maintaining Hubble and on the amount of data, in bits, it had returned to date and he compared those costs to the then price of SMS messages. How much cheaper have texts gotten since then? How much more data has Hubble sent back?

On a per bit basis, at the time, SMS cost more on your bill than what NASA paid for data from the Hubble Space Telescope. I wish I remembered the actual number he quoted but I recall it being at least one order of magnitude more.

Consider, SMS is actually originally an additional use of the SS7 protocols used to allow the cell towers to set up and tear down the connection for a phone call and to bill you for it. Adding SMS to your cell services demanded the telcos do nothing more than update their software. No extra towers, bandwidth, nothing. It was just a really smart additional use for an existing resource. I’d hazard a very confident guess it costs them a lot more to track and bill you for your texts than to send them.

Think about that the next time you pay your cell bill. Think about that the next time you cut them an ounce of slack for blocking your upgrade of Android to Froyo or your iPhone from tethering without an extra fee on top of the data plan you already pay for.

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