The Politics of Free Texts

In the midst of high inflation rates, oil crisis, and the plunging economy, the government is now pushing for free text messaging in the country. It sounds salutory at first but when you piece together the administration’s political jigsaw puzzle, it looks more like a reversal of the President’s “rather-be-right-than-popular” initiative. Just recently, it was MERALCO being pounded for ownership and billing disputes. Now, it is the telecommunications companies’ turn on the judgment seat. The former was more logical, though.

Putting political intentions aside, free short messaging service (SMS) here is impractical and barely possible. The Philippines is the world’s texting capital accounting for more than 300 million text messages sent daily. Unlike in other countries where SMS is a supplement to their primary revenue-generating voice services, many Filipinos spend more for text messaging than for voice calls especially the prepaid subscribers. Calls are usually made only when there are very important or urgent matters to relay or when text messages become incomprehensible.

The National Telecommunications Commission ruled out that SMS, being a value-added service of wireless networks, must be free-of-charge. In a land of ten-peso (about $0.24) prepaid airtime reload and 30-peso SIM cards, asking for freebies can mean getting mediocre services and hurting the underground economy.

We are already complaining of dead spots (i.e. areas beyond wireless coverage), delayed or lost messages, and erroneous load deductions in prepaid accounts. How then can we be assured that the upgrading of network infrastructures and improvement of cellular techonologies will continue if a major (in the case of the Philippines) wireless service suddenly becomes a public service? SMS servers will surely clog as the quantity of messages balloons up while network capacity sits still.

The income of cellphone dealers and small retail stores will also get dented as prepaid reloading demand will significantly drop down. Reloading business may seem marginal but it actually caters to the majority of the local mobile market.

The healthy competition within the telecom industry is already a potent force in driving technology forward and its prices downward. Of course, consumers will appreciate lower voice call rates, longer validity period for prepaid load, and cheaper inter-network messaging. Nevertheless, SMS must not be a free service for now as it can spawn text spams and other abuses, affect related businesses, and encourage further insensibilities among texters.

If the politicians really want to offer us some things for free, I’d rather that they be a transparent government free from corruption and a globally-competitive country that we would rather measure by Gross National Happiness like Sudan’s than by Gross National Product which feels nothing more than a press release each time. Let the cost of text messaging send itself down at its own rate.

The best things in life are free. The better ones come cheap. The worst are desperately trying to win votes for the next elections.

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