The Net Neutrality Debate Also Affects SMS

Editor’s note: Nic Denholm is a content consultant for SMS marketing platform FireText.

Net neutrality was one of last year’s biggest tech stories. The one that went mainstream after John Oliver poked fun at it and beseeched his viewers to flood the FCC’s comments page with tirades against a two-tiered Internet (which caused the site to crash).

So far, the main focus of the debate has been whether ISPs should be allowed to discriminate between the various data they deliver. The main opponents of a tiered Internet are companies like Netflix and YouTube, which deliver high volumes of rich content to their audience and don’t want to have to start charging customers more (in the case of the former) or upping their advertising (in the case of the latter).

Unsurprisingly, audiences are on their side, leaving the broadband providers and a few libertarian politicians in the opposing corner fighting what should be a losing battle. I say “should” because even overwhelming public opposition was not enough to prevent a D.C. Court of Appeals overturning a previous ruling requiring ISPs to treat all traffic equally.

Despite the attention, huge swathes of the American population still have no clue what “net neutrality” refers to. According to a recent Pew poll, some 40 percent of Americans either don’t understand the concept or they’ve flat out never heard of it.

Even fewer understand the relationship between net neutrality and SMS. HeyWire Business, a Cambridge, Mass., tech firm that provides text message services to businesses, learned of that relationship the hard way. Until April 3 of last year, HeyWire was merrily going about their business, giving businesses a way to receive text messages via toll-free 800 numbers. Then everything stopped. No error messages, no warning – just thousands of errant texts failing to reach their destination.

The company contacted Verizon, which informed them of a new set of fees and regulations to adhere to if they were to continue expecting delivery of text messages. HeyWire claim Verizon has unfair control over how they operate – something they view as a breach of net neutrality.

At this point, those 125 million Americans with no interest in net neutrality aren’t getting any more interested. It’s complicated. Complications are boring. With that in mind, here’s a brief explanation as to why SMS and broadband provision are lumped in together by carriers:

Basically, mobile services are divided into two distinct elements: voice and Internet. The voice element is protected under the Communications Act of 1934. Internet-based services are not. For the purposes of prizing more money out of users, service providers have decided to stick SMS messaging under the Internet banner. Because they can.

Carriers essentially have the right to deliver text messages as they see fit, at whatever price they can get away with. That means they can not only charge extortionate premiums, but also police content to decide what people see. This is worrying for neutrality campaigners.

The FCC is currently considering net neutrality regulations for home and business broadband. Democrats are pushing a bill to ban paid prioritization allowing preferential treatment for premium payers. A vote is set for Feb 26. Advocates of a fair, open Internet are hoping for an outcome that will prevent the big carriers from running roughshod over their customers.

In light of the experiences of HeyWire and other companies, SMS messaging should be added to the cause.