Friday, 9 May 2008

SMS Home Routing, should we as an industry be worried?

SMS Home Routing was a key topic discussed at Global Messaging 2008 this week. It's introduction brings with it the potential to seriously disrupt how we in the mobile messaging business deliver our services, especially cross-border. I made it my mission this week to try and understand what it means from the operator and vendor perspective

Firstly, I should probably explain the problem. SMS Home Routing means that whenever a message is sent to me it always passes through my home network, irrespective of where I am in the world. Normally when roaming, my home network never sees the message as it sent directly from the originating network to the network I'm roaming on.

Great, my operator can give me all sorts of value add services, like O2's Blue Book,SPAM filtering, twinning, out of office replies, SMS forwarding, etc, etc. To do all of these, the operator need to be able to intercept the SMS and apply some rules on it before passing it on to my handset.

It's the implementation of this interception that is the cause for concern. I spoke to, and heard from, senior figures at vendors like Airwide, Telsis and Tekelec who presented opposing views on how they recommend that their customers, the operators, do this. Similarly when I spoke to the operators they were also divided.

In the blue corner we have the transactional advocates. They believe that the transactional nature of SMS should be preserved. When a request is made to send a message to a handset, their systems proxy the request in real time. It handles delivering the message onto the handset and returns the ACK (delivery indication) back if the handset accepts the message. The sending SMSC know's nothing other of what happens behind the proxy but when the home network router reports the messages as delivered, it is.

In the red corner we have the store and forward advocates. Their systems will store the message and return the ACK back to the sending SMSC before it attempts to deliver the message to the destination handset. This unfortunately breaks the transactional nature of SMS and one of the key features that certainly most of our customers buy into, knowing whether the message has got to the handset.

I'll be honest, I arrived at the conference passionately backing the blue corner, a delivery receipt should tell me when the messages has actually arrived at the handset, but one of the vendors I spoke to certainly gave me some use cases that cause me to question this stance.

  • Security - send me an SMS and you can find out which country I'm in, what if I don't know you or want you to know where I am.
  • Status - a delivery receipt implies something about my status, I'm accepting messages therefore you can accept a response, what if I don't want you to know.
  • Twinning - where an SMS is sent to two or more of my handsets simultaneously when is it delivered, when it hits one, two, all?

I guess this comes down to a question of who owns the message, the sender or the recipient? Home routing allows the recipient to delegate the job of message handling to their operator instead of their handset thus allowing the recipient to take advantage of all sorts of value-add services.

The business case for these systems that came up time and time again was SPAM filtering. The network wants to protect their subscribers from nefarious senders of unsolicited messages which generally originate from off the network.

I starting to believe that this is perhaps a bigger threat. The move by the Spanish operators to outlaw the use of alphanumeric originators, except those that have been pre agreed and do not originate off-net appears to be conducted under the banner of SPAM prevention.

The evidence I hear around the industry of legitimate messages being quietly discarded when sent to certain networks because of 'quality' issues is not the fault of home routing but more likely overly simplistic SPAM filters.

The subject of alphanumeric originators, network interconnects and the operators general distrust of A2P (application to person) traffic is a topic I will be returning to as I believe this is a more fundamental issue affecting us that could very quickly get out of hand.

Coming back to SMS home routing, I believe ultimately we have to accept it as an inevitability. As one operator contact told me, "I don't like it, but because xxx have done it we're going to have to as well". And let's be honest there are some really cool things it allows my network to do for me.

Much as we'd like not to, we have to accept that we faced with an oligopoly whose interests are not necessarily aligned with ours. The concept of delivery receipts and the knowledge they give us about the status of a communication is changing and we going to have to swallow that pill and adapt our services accordingly.

The rules have changed, but innovation thrives in times of adversity

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