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SMSes may seem like a living fossil, but they were 10% of MNO revenue

Picture of a basic cell phone

SMSes are in many respects a relic from a time before internet based messaging platforms. At one point they were the only means by which text was sent digitally on mobile devices. There are those of a certain age who remember trying to say as much as they could in the 160 characters available.

To you and me now there are rare occasions when sending an SMS may be considered a primary mode of communication. The decline of Person-to-Person (P2P) SMS traffic is because of a number of factors which include:

  • Internet penetration maybe creeping slowly in Africa but it is gaining ground. And through social media and internet based messaging platforms SMSes aren’t a first option any more.
  • Internet’s based messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, Signal (and social media messaging) have taken off. They offer greater security and features that aren’t available through SMS.
  • The advent of Rich Communication Services protocol (RCS) has many calling it the replacement for SMS.
  • Paying for SMSes when weighed against the bundles available for platforms like WhatsApp and all that WhatsApp has to offer means that people gravitate more to the service that gives them more for their money.

Even though internet services are expensive there has been an up tick in internet usage in Zimbabwe:

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POTRAZ

This isn’t only to do with messaging services, there are a number of opportunities online that have made the internet, although expensive, a necessity.

A2P overtaking P2P

The decline of P2P SMSes doesn’t mean that the service as whole is going away. Over the last decade or so the Application-to-Person (A2P) market has shown signs that there is still some life in SMSes.

A2P is a type of SMS sent from an application to a subscriber. This kind of messaging may be sometimes referred to as enterprise, or business SMS.

Credit: Ovum

“Unfortunately for most telcos, P2P SMS has become essentially value-less, since they have had to bundle unlimited SMS into mobile tariffs to remain relevant to their customers, an increasing number of whom use chat apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook Messenger.”

Pamela Clark-Dickosn, Practice Leader of Ovum’s Communications and Social Team

Ovum’s projection calculated that by 2021 the A2P SMS revenue will exceed that of P2P SMS. The figure they arrived at for A2P SMS revenue (in 2021) is US$42 billion globally, and A2P traffic will be less than half that of P2P.

On the telecoms side of things, it is more viable to offer Bulk SMS services to corporations. They charge per message and these companies usually have a very large database of clients to inform about a number of things. Econet and NetOne have bulk SMS services available for those who may need them.

SMSes made up 10.9% of MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) total revenue for Q1 of 2020. This sum is most likely down bulk SMS services to corporations. We can’t however discount the impact of SMS bundles to that figure. With basic cellphones still in use there are those out there who still use them.

There are also a number of independent companies in Zimbabwe that offer bulk SMS services:

All the above mentioned companies require any prospective clients to have their own database.

What do businesses use SMSes for?

Alerts and notifications

I’m sure we are all familiar with the SMS notifications we get from banks or mobile money service providers like EcoCash. Be it a confirmation of a transfer, balance enquiry or notification of a deposit. All of those messages are provided for by either through a telecommunications company or an independent bulk SMS service.

This isn’t limited to just corporations. In this public health crisis we are in, we have all received messages from the Ministry of Health about COVID-19 preventive measures. Emergency SMSes have been used by governments in cases of extreme weather conditions, natural disasters, military threats, chemical spills, and mass shootings. Events like these are time sensitive and the best way to get the word out is through SMS because it will reach the most people.

Mobile Marketing

Marketing is a field that aims to maximise the reach of any platform. SMSes are no exception, globally the A2P mobile marketing industry was valued at US$53.07 billion and according to Market Watch will grow to US$79.50 billion in 2024.

In Africa SMS marketing does well because of the cost of smartphones, the slow wider rollout of 4G technology on the continent. This may, however change with more affordable smartphone slowly making their way to the market. As those devices make their way to the market, SMS marketing is still a viable means to advertise products to customers.

On that note

Back in 2013 POTRAZ (Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe), issued a regulatory circular on unsolicited SMSes. The circular was prompted by a deluge of messages that were sent to people. POTRAZ identified that some MNOs had invited companies and third parties to advertise their products, services and even register subscribers through bulk messaging.

This was seen as a privacy issue and the directive to MNOs was to only send bulk messages to people that opt in to receiving those messages. I haven’t yet seen advertisements that are outside the products and services that my network service provider is offering.

For companies that may want to advertise they are required to have their database of contacts that have opted in to the SMS based advertisements.

Two-Factor Authentication

We have all at some point changed our password on an email service and have received a text from the service provider with a code to type in to proceed. It could also have been a case to better secure our email in the event that someone tried to illegally access it.

SMSes are a quick and effective means to getting this information to users. This isn’t only confined to emails, some applications during registration, as a means of verification send codes through SMS. It’s an understated service that goes a long way to protecting information and services.

Is A2P’s steady course going to continue?

This is a difficult question because there are signs that allude to affirm the steady rise but there are also developments that say otherwise.

Reasons for:

  • In Africa, the reach of technology may mean that A2P may continue to be a viable means of corporations and businesses to get their services and products to their customers.
  • There are companies that make SMS based chatbots. SMS chatbots have the advantage that they can reach anyone with a cellular mobile device regardless of its capabilities. Until there is some universality in smartphones, SMS may still have a place.
  • SMSes are still the best tool for widespread information dissemination in case of emergencies or time sensitive national announcements.
  • Omni-channel communication in Zimbabwe is still reliant on SMS as well as, e-mail, voice and WhatsApp (contact or chatbot). A wide net is always good when it comes to meeting customer needs where ever they may be or whatever means of communication they may have at their disposal. This is especially important in areas that don’t have internet services. The only viable alternatives in situations like that, even though it will cost more than a WhatsApp bundle, are voice and SMS.

Reasons against:

  • The advent of social media and messaging app based chatbots may spell the end for Bulk SMSes. The ease of use and convenience of chatbots is tempting more companies to deploy them and who knows they may at some point no longer use SMSes.
  • SMS chatbots have glaring flaw, you need to have credit in your phone to be able to communicate with them. Customers are less likely to use this service because of the costs.
  • As affordable smartphones make their way to the market, more people will be able to use internet based messaging services. As the pool of people with smartphones grows, it might see businesses rely less on SMS.


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