SMS fees are pure profit for the cellular carriers. They’re basically free for carriers to send, but they can often cost ten cents or more per message. It costs more to send a text message on Earth than it does to transmit data from Mars.
Given these extortionate fees, it’s no surprise that a variety of apps are springing up that allow people to send text messages for free and avoid the carriers. The most popular, WhatsApp, claims it has more users than Twitter and sends more messages than Facebook worldwide.
Why Do Texts Cost So Much, Anyway?
The truth about text messages is that they don’t put any additional load on a cellular network. They’re sent along with other data that’s already being used with the wireless network. A text is basically free for a carrier to send.
So why do carriers charge so much for text messages? Well, for a similar reason that carriers add so much profit to roaming fees — because they can get away with it.
If your plan gives you unlimited text messages — something that sounds nice, but is basically free for the carrier to offer so they bundle it to justify high monthly fees — you probably don’t care about getting text messages for free. However, if you use a prepaid carrier with pay-per-use billing, using one of the apps below can help you and your friends save money, texting entirely for free when you’re on Wi-Fi.
WhatsApp, the most popular free messaging app, piggybacks on top of your existing phone number and contacts. When you install WhatsApp on your phone, you’ll have to confirm your phone number by receiving a text message. After you do, WhatsApp will associate the app with your current phone number on its servers. It will scan your phone’s address book and look at the phone numbers you have associated with your contacts, displaying your contacts that are using WhatsApp. If they’re using WhatsApp, you can message them via the WhatsApp app. WhatsApp functions similarly to SMS, but it sends messages via the Internet — so it will be completely free if you’re connected to Wi-Fi or will only cost you a small bit of data if you’re on a cellular network.
The interesting thing about WhatsApp is how low-friction it is. You don’t have to tell your friends to sign up for WhatsApp accounts and then friend each other, as you do on other messaging services. If someone in your address book is on WhatsApp, you’ll know. If you already text with people, you can just ask everyone to download WhatsApp and you’ll see them in WhatsApp without any friending required.
US Only: Google Voice
If you’re in the USA, you can sign up for a free Google Voice number. Using the Google Voice mobile app or even Google Voice on the web, you can send free text messages. Like with WhatsApp, if you send a text message via Google Voice while not connected to Wi-Fi, the app will use a bit of data instead of counting as a text message. One nice thing about Google Voice is that it isn’t mobile-only. You can also send and receive text messages on the web,.
You can even port your existing phone number to Google Voice, using it as your main number to send and receive calls from.
iOS Only: Apple iMessage
Apple’s iOS devices and Macs include iMessage. If you’re using iMessage and send a message to another iMessage user, iMessage will send that message over the Internet (via Wi-Fi or a data connection) rather than sending it as a traditional text message. This all happens automatically — the app routes as many messages as possible via the Internet rather than sending them as traditional SMS messages.
If you’re using an iPhone and send a message to another iPhone user, that message will be probably transmitted over the Internet rather than as a traditional SMS message. However, this requires your contacts have Apple devices — if they don’t, you’re better off using a cross-platform app like WhatsApp.
The above options are far from the only SMS-replacement services. There are a wide variety of services,some of which are more popular in individual countries. Kik, Viber, Line, Facebook Messenger, BlackBerry Messenger (soon to be available for iOS and Android), Google Hangouts — the list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, while SMS was a service that allowed people with different phones and apps to interoperate with each other, all of these messaging apps are confined to their own little world. If you want to message someone on WhatsApp, you’ll need to be using WhatsApp. If you want to message someone via Google Hangouts, you’ll have to do it via the Google Hangouts app.
If you really want to send free texts between your social circle or family, you may want to decide on an app that you’ll all use. Thanks to the carriers’ greed, the world of mobile messaging services has become fragmented.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 06/1/13