Despite SMS’s amazing longevity and the ability to adapt it for a range of personal and business communication needs over the last two decades, SMS is not immune to misuse that may result in devaluing it as a communications channel. This is why it is imperative that businesses and consumers fight to maintain the integrity of SMS messaging or risk losing it due to inboxes overflowing with spam.

SMS’s value, both to businesses and consumers, is that it is instantly received and often immediately acted upon. SMSs are on the increase while phone calls are on the decrease thanks to this immediacy combined with the asynchronous nature of SMS. An SMS doesn’t demand an immediate reply, although it is likely to happen, unlike a ringing phone or a beeping instant message.

In fact, ironically, mobile instant messaging has become so persistent and invasive that people have resorted to switching off the beeping notifications and instead rely on SMS to initiate instant messaging chats with friends. This fits into a consumer trend towards cutting down the mobile noise to avoid negatively impacting their work and lifestyle.

Unfortunately, if unscrupulous companies abuse the SMS channel it could suffer the same fate: with a deluge of unwanted marketing communications, people could also switch of the sound of SMS notifications, rendering the channel unusable for legitimate business communications. This would impact negatively on the sending of all application-to-person (A2P) SMSes, especially mission-critical alerts and notifications.

In fact, just that happened in India in 2011, where all A2P messaging was affected due to a government attempt to curtail the extraordinarily high levels of spam SMS messages Indian cellphone users were receiving. For now, South Africans face far less spam SMS than Indians do and even though our A2P market is mature by worldwide standards. We receive on average 10 A2P SMSes per month.

Typically there are two ways to reduce spam over SMS: raising prices or via regulation. While the former is what was needed in India, where SMS prices are extremely cheap, I’d argue against this for South Africa. The thinking behind rising SMS prices is that it impacts the return on investment of the spammers – but in South Africa SMS prices are high enough for this to already be the case. Any price increase will only benefit the operators, it will certainly not benefit businesses that will pay more for SMSs and this will likely reduce their use of SMS services, resulting in consumers receiving fewer legitimate SMS alerts.

In South Africa, I’d argue we need to support our already very good regulatory framework - in our case a self-regulatory system via the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (WASPA). As a starting point, businesses should ensure their SMS lists are permission based, opt-in databases so that they themselves aren’t sending SMS spam unintentionally.

Secondly, as the WASP industry we need to take a long-term view that ensures the continued innovation of the SMS channel, rather than just looking to make a quick buck through flouting current industry regulations. These actions impact negatively on general consumer opinion on the merits of the industry through the unscrupulous actions of a few players.

Thirdly, industry self-regulation is itself hugely effective as it is nimble enough to adapt to changing technology, industry developments and challenges. The industry, businesses and consumers should actively support this self-regulatory approach over other attempts to manage the mobile messaging market.

Consumers play an important role in alerting WASPA to suspected spam by lodging complaints with the regulator. WASPA is able to follow-up on complaints via the WASP and insist the sender show where they sourced the recipients’ details. In the past, consumers might have been frustrated by WASPA being unable to follow-up with complaints that originated from non-WASPA members. Currently almost all A2P SMS messages can be traced to a specific WASP.

The bottom line is that if SMS spam increases, it degrades the integrity of the channel for all users, eventually resulting in the demise of SMS messaging. However, if the channel is used legitimately, ethically and innovatively, it increases SMS’s value for all users. The day the consumer starts switching off their SMS notifications marks the start of the end in SMS’s usefulness as a valuable alert mechanism, which is why it is important for all stakeholders, mobile network operators, WASPs, technology providers, digital agencies, brands, civic associations and consumers - to fight the increase in SMS spam.