After years of lagging behind Europe and Japan in the adoption of mobile text messaging, US subscribers have finally caught the SMS (short messaging service) bug.

A total of 48.7bn SMS messages were sent in the last six months of 2005, up 50 per cent from 32.5bn in the first six months of last year, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA).

About 40 per cent of the more than 200m mobile phone subscribers in the US now use text messaging, up from 25 per cent in 2003 but still far behind the 60 per cent plus penetration rates in Europe.

“The US has been slow to adopt SMS,” admits Jim Ryan, vice-president in charge of consumer data services at Cingular Wireless, the largest US mobile carrier. Nevertheless, he believes that is changing.

Recent growth in mobile text messaging volumes reflects the success of the leading US mobile carriers including the big three – Cingular, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel – in boosting subscriber awareness of the service, which allows almost any mobile phone user to send a text message of up to 160 characters almost instantly. Cingular has seen its lucrative SMS traffic surge, boosted in part by SMS voting for contestants on American Idol, the TV talent show.

Over the past year Cingular, a joint venture between AT&T and BellSouth, recorded 64.5m SMS votes for American Idol, up 52 per cent from the previous season. “American Idol was big and started people messaging,” said Mr Ryan.

Overall Cingular had 26.5m active data customers and delivered 8.7bn text messages and 131m multi-media messages – mostly camera phone images – in the latest quarter.

Mr Ryan believes text messaging has been slower to take off in the US in part because the economics of texting were not so compelling in the US as elsewhere, and because early adopters – typically business professionals and youth – had greater access to mobile e-mail devices.

Mobile carriers in the US have begun to address the first issue by offering subscribers bundles of lower-cost SMS messages that start at $5 a month for 200 messages and make text messaging more financially attractive. At the same time US carriers are actively seeking to educate their subscribers about SMS.

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