SMS FOR A BETTER WORLD? A Global SMS Hub for Civil Society Organizations.

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jan 24, 2007

Photo by loungerie, Creative CommonsI am part of a research project for the Gates Foundation on the future of global online advocacy, where I have been adding data and commentary on mobile content.  One of the ideas we have floated is a global SMS hub – a commercial aggregator for low cost global SMS campaigns.  

Why is this needed?

SMS is a critical tool for e-advocacy in the global south.  Given the high rates of mobile phone penetration in large parts of the world compared to Internet access, SMS allows a much wider reach than email.  However, mass SMS campaigns are not feasible option for many NGOs in the global south because of cost – costs that pertain both to the NGO itself and to potential campaign participants who must pay to text. Sending an email message (or a thousand) entails no excess cost for an NGO above the cost of an internet connection (which admittedly, can be formidable in some parts of the world).  However, if an NGO sends an SMS, it must pay per message (the global average cost is .10 US $), making mass texting thousands of messages prohibitively expensive. In addition, SMS  is in some countries still relatively expensive for consumers, making it somewhat unlikely that they would send an SMS message on behalf of an advocacy campaign.  

What would reduce the cost of SMS for social causes and allow for mass sms campaigns to become a reality for NGOs engaging their constituents?

What is needed is a global SMS hub for civil society organizations, and possibly even one with toll-free numbers for SMS that would not charge participants. With a toll-free SMS short code, the sender would not have to pay to send the SMS to a particular number or better yet short code.  This would require short code requisition for many countries and agreements with all telephone operator in the country (or countries) in which the service is to be offered -- short, a global aggregator service with a twist, a Clickatell for Good.

How far off from being a reality is a global SMS hub for civil society?

The GSM Association recently completed trials of a hub-baed interoperability structure.  From it’s press release:

“First unveiled in February 2006, the GSMA’s new hub-based structure will deliver major operational and financial efficiencies to mobile operators by removing the need to reach time-consuming bilateral inter-working agreements… More than one trillion text messages were sent globally last year and international traffic is growing rapidly, placing pressure on operators to replace the existing web of bilateral agreements with a more efficient structure for the delivery of messages across the GSM networks in 215 countries and territories.”

This hub structure means that operators now will to

“connect once to a hub to reach all the other networks connected to that hub. Moreover, through interconnect arrangements between hubs, they will be able to reach operators connected to other hubs. This combined solution ensures that operators and their customers will benefit from a high level of service quality, including reliable delivery reports and protection against spam, security, billing and settlement, while maintaining the independence of each operator to determine its own pricing structures.”

The trials involved 25 operators in more than 20 countries, AND included key aggregators such as Aicent, Belgacom ICS, Clickatell, CITIC Telecom 1616, Comfone, Radius-ED, MACH/End2End, Mobile 365, Syniverse Technologies, Telecom Italia Sparkle, TeliaSonera, Tyntec and VeriSign.

And what are the Operators saying?  Again, from the GSMA press release:

“With open SMS hubbing, operators can simply and quickly bring to market broad-reaching messaging services, without lengthy contract negotiations, billing procedures, and network testing and configuration. CMCC had, as early as Dec 2002, launched International SMS for its customers using an SMS hubbing platform which largely conforms to the current SMS hubbing model drafted and promoted by GSMA. CMCC has benefited from it throughout several years of operation. We are very pleased and encouraged by the success of these latest trials and look forward to the system shortly becoming a technical and commercial reality," said Junming Shao, Project Manager for International Services, China Mobile (CHINA)
"SMS hubbing makes life easier for operators when it comes to SMS interworking, reducing efforts in terms of time and resources such as in agreement negotiation, billing, testing, quality monitoring. Thanks to the open SMS hubbing guidelines defined in GSMA, operators can get large numbers of SMS interworking relationships globally in a shorter timeframe than by using bilateral negotiation. Operators are thus facilitated in focussing their efforts on delivering added value to their customers." said Lucy Lombardi, EMC member Telecom Italia (Italy) of Telecom Italia Mobile (ITALY).

“The success of this latest trial paves the way for a new era of cost-effective SMS connectivity among operators. The hub system provides a secure, open standards system for operators that takes the headache out of inter-working, while also delivering significant cost-savings and improved network efficiencies. With the trials complete, we now look forward to seeing the benefits when the system goes live before the end of this year,” said Ashok Juneja, Corporate Director, Network Technology & Projects of Airtel (INDIA)

So where are we at?

Given these promising development, it would seem possible to build a social enterprise (either with the GSMA, an aggregator, or independently) that would:

  • provide global SMS services to NGO and civil society campaigns
  • provide requisition of short codes in the countries where campaigns are run
  • work ion the GSMA hubbing infrastructure to reduce friction amongst networks and operators
  • provide competitive services to international NGOs such as Amnesty, Greenpeace, Oxfam and others who are seeking to expand their international SMS campaigns and need competitive, professional global aggregation and SMS hub services
  • provide services in case of humanitarian relief and natural disaters to international NGOs, donor countries, and relief agencies
  • provide SMS services to election monitoring agencies, health care agencies, and others operating across national boundaries/carrier/operators
  • provide a competitive grant pool for smaller civil society campaigns who would apply for funding in the form of services, funded by international funders such as Gates, OSI, and others interested in civil society.

This is clearly still preliminary but it seems that there is enough there to warrant delving deeper into the feasibility of the GLOBAL SMS HUB FOR A MORE CIVIL SOCIETY – or short: SMS for a Better World.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><p><br> <b><i><blockquote>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options