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Here, a monthly perspective from Consumers Union on the latest challenges—and possible solutions—facing U.S. consumers today. See archived letters.

Why texting is too $$$

Wild bills
Jerry Sobieski, with daughter Greta, resents the high charges he pays for text messages.
Photograph by Cade Martin

Jerry Sobieski's teenagers are forever sending text messages to friends on their cell phones instead of calling them. What baffles and infuriates Sobieski, a computer network engineer from Woodbine, Md., are the rates wireless carriers charge their customers to send and receive text messages.

"Text messages take up almost nothing on their networks, but the carriers are charging much more for them than they do for phone calls, which use up a heck of a lot more space," he says. "The rates for texting are completely outrageous."

Three years ago, those rates were 10 cents per text at the nation's four big wireless carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. Each company raised rates to 15 cents, then to 20 cents.

Text files are small and cost carriers very little to transmit, so texting is exponentially more expensive to consumers in terms of network space than other cell services. Five hundred text messages contain less data than a 1-minute voice transmission.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., also questions text-messaging rates. In letters to the above companies, Kohl, chairman of the Senate's antitrust subcommittee, demanded that wireless carriers explain why they've doubled the cost to customers in near lockstep. Kohl says he's particularly concerned that the rate jump appears not to be based on a rise in the cost of transmitting text messages.

Some carriers say that texting rates are actually lower now because most customers buy monthly buckets of messages. Consumers Union isn't swayed. Not all customers send or receive enough texts in a month to warrant a plan. Those who don't must shell out for messages they won't use or must pay the higher per-text rate.

In recent years, industry consolidation has greatly reduced the number of wireless carriers. That's troubling, particularly when carriers engage in anti-consumer behavior. CU has asked federal officials to investigate text-messaging rates in this supposedly competitive industry. They should ask tough questions about the actual costs to carriers, so that consumers aren't saddled with an unwarranted expense.

What you can do

If you send and receive a lot of text messages, a bundle might be the best option. Send just a few each month? Consider paying per message.

If you find yourself facing a big texting bill, contact your carrier. Some will let you purchase a bundle plan retroactively.

For more money-saving tips, see What you can do about cell phone bill "extras."

Posted: December 2008 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: January 2009