Soon after the 5.9 magnitude earthquake on the east coast (epicenter at Mineral, Virginia) a few weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked cell phone users in the earthquake region to use text messaging and email, instead of making voice calls, when contacting love ones to let them know they were OK. As some of you may know, I recently wrote that paying extra for text messaging is a rip off. I went on to say that, in my opinion, there is little value that texting delivers to a consumer over placing a simple voice call. Well, in times of disaster this is one of the few moments that text messaging has an advantage over placing a voice call. Despite this, however, it still does not make economical or logical sense for consumers to invest in texting. To prove my point, I will explain how cell phone carriers economically approach texting and voice calling. This will help to further support my position, even in times of a disaster.
First, let us talk about the technologies and their limitations. In telecommunications, whether it is texting or voice calls, bandwidth is the main commodity. If you are not familiar with the term bandwidth, let us break the word into two parts. Think of the band as being analogous to a “pipe”. The required width of this “pipe” is based on the type of communication method used. Texting requires a narrower band or pipe than voice calling requires. At this point, I am sure a few of you are asking why this is. Well, because voice calls must encode (digitize in this case) and decode (return to an analog signal) a large range of frequencies at all times, even when a word is not uttered, much more bandwidth is required. As a matter of fact, to make voice calls, three “pipes” are needed: one for hearing (receiving), one for talking (transmitting), and a third to control the transactions between the phone and cell tower. Unlike with voice calls, texting only requires that the necessary communication bits (digital data) are sent, and they are sent on the control “pipe” only.
Economics: Economically, telecommunication networks are very expensive to construct. If mobile phone service providers were to provide guaranteed voice service to every subscriber, the service would cost much more than most subscribers would be willing to pay or could even afford to pay. Therefore, to make it affordable for customers, deliver adequate service, and increase profits for themselves, mobile phone service companies sell service to more customers than their phone network can accommodate at any given time. How can they do that? Before texting, cell phone carriers knew, based on statistics, only a fraction of their customers would use their phones to make a phone call at any given time. After texting became popular, they knew statistically even less phone users would make voice calls in most instances. Because of this fact, it was possible for cell phone service providers to sell even more cell phone service without significantly impacting the quality of voice call service because texting requires less bandwidth and more users would text. However, during times of disaster, there is no way the system can accommodate all of the users at one time.
Logical Conclusion: Because disasters do not occur very often, it makes financial and logical sense for cell phone service providers to build their networks to handle the capacity of everyday customer usage versus the capacity needed during disasters. For example, the earthquake that rocked the east coast was the strongest earthquake in to hit Virginia since 1897, according to the Washington Post. If Hurricane Irene had followed the early most likely projected path, it would have been the first to hit New York directly since 1903. It is illogical and financially unfeasible for a cell phone network to support the calling volumes in all scenarios.
Similarly, it does not make economical or logical sense for the average consumer to be prepared for every single possible scenario (earthquakes, hurricane, terrorist attack) in life, at all times. Instead, as consumers, we need to be prepared based on what is normal in our everyday lives just as the phone carriers do. For disaster scenarios when call volume will be high, we need to have a cost effective back up plans that can also be used in our everyday lives. A good alternative is to have a cell phone data plan and use email, instant messaging, and social media through your phone. They will be close to if not just as efficient as texting, and you get much more in return for you money. In addition, you can use the vast resources of the entire internet through the data plan at all times and at cost effective rates everyday.
When cell phone carriers were transitioning from analog to digital, they gave consumers incentives to make the switch. There is no reason cell phone carriers cannot give consumers incentives to use texting rather than making voice phone calls, especially since texting allows carriers to provide service to more consumers at virtually no cost. When that occurs, then, texting will make economic sense.