T-Mobile recently informed companies who use short codes to connect with T-Mobile customers that the process for code approval is going to change. The good news is that there is now an option to speed up the process. The bad news is that if you are not a Fortune 500 company, it is going to cost you.
As regular blog readers will remember, one step in the long, expensive process of activating a short code (those five or six digit numbers you use to text donations to charities or votes for American Idol) is getting individual approval from each of the carriers to access their subscribers (you read that right). With T-Mobile, this part of the process takes about 30 days and costs $500.
Under the new plan, applicants can request an expedited review process. This process is only available to companies with a grade of A or B from the Better Business Bureau. If you are a Fortune 500 company, all that is required is that you ask for the expedited review. If you are a company of more modest means, the expedited review will cost you an additional $1,500. That is a 300% increase over the standard application fee.
T-Mobile will justify this extra fee (and the existence of application fees at all) on the grounds that it has to review the proposal of every applicant in order to make sure that the applicant is not up to no good. However, the Fortune 500 company discount is a strange way to do that. Most companies that actually control short codes are small and medium size businesses. They have many clients and operate many short code campaigns at any given time. That means that they go through this process all the time. These companies, even if they have already been investigated multiple times by T-Mobile and found to be on the up-and-up, still must pay the additional $1,500 fast lane fee. However, any Fortune 500 company can get into the short code fast lane for free, even if it is their first time navigating the byzantine rules that carriers will impose on them.
Upon hearing this latest development, it is natural to begin to try to evaluate it within the context of the short code approval system. It might be good to create a fast lane for code approval. Drawing a line between Fortune 500 companies and other companies may be a reasonable proxy for the likelihood for acting inappropriately (There are plenty of instances of large companies acting fraudulently, but maybe it makes sense in this context).
However, it becomes truly bizarre when considered in the context of our larger communications universe. Imagine if phone companies insisted on investigating the intentions of everyone who got a phone number. What if websites need to apply to ISPs in order to access subscribers? If you needed approval to send an email to someone on a different email service?
Such a process would create massive delays. Also, it would impede the free flow of information. Phone companies should not be in a position to decide what kinds of companies, organizations, and people get phone numbers (provided that those companies, organizations, and people can pay for the phone numbers). The same goes for web sites. And email addresses. For that matter, the same goes for mailing addresses.
Somehow, the wireless carriers have decided that short codes are different from every other tool used to facilitate communication on a large scale. For some reason, the FCC has decided to go along with it and has studiously avoided acting on our three-year-old petition to protect text messaging the same way it protects voice calling. Over at Ars Technica, Nate Anderson recently wrote about how ubiquitous text messaging has become. It seems like the last people to this party will be those who are supposed to understand our communications infrastructure the best: the FCC.