Dealing with Short Code Probation

The following is a guest post by Greg Hickman, a mobile marketing consultant and founder of

Hello and welcome to the phone company’s new business line setup department. We’re happy to help you get started and set up a new phone line for your business but even though you’re new here we’re putting you on probation. See, we want to make sure you understand the rules while on probation:

  1. You can’t buy your number or service directly from us. We’ve selected a small group of resellers that you can choose from but they all have the same ridiculously high prices because we force them to charge the same thing to everyone. What? You want competition? Forget it, we’re the phone company!
  2. Your new phone number costs $500/month plus usage fees (and, no, that’s not a typo). Of course, that’s only for a random number that we assign – if you want to pick your own number it’s actually $1000/month. Ridiculous, you say? You want another source to buy your service from? You must have skipped ahead, be sure to read #1, above.
  3. Now, while you’re on probation, before you use this number to call anyone we have to approve what you’re going to say in advance. You can’t say what we don’t want you to say. And don’t accuse us of censorship – we are the PHONE COMPANY, silly.
  4. Oh we almost forgot… you actually have to file an application telling us in advance what you intend to say on this phone line. We’ll review that and have to approve it in advance. Each review costs about $500, by the way. We advise you to be really careful about this application, though, because if you decide to say something different, well, you’ll have to cough up another $500 in order to update what you want to say.
  5. (Did we forget to mention that it takes about 8-12 weeks for us to approve your application before you can make your first phone call? Yeahhh – sorry about that, that’s just how it works.
  6. You’ll probably want to publicize this business number so that your program is a success. That’s totally fine, but please note the subparts to this rule:
      • Anywhere the number appears, whether in a print ad, a brochure, your web site or even the awning in front of your business, you have to add a line underneath it that reminds people they’ll be paying for a phone call when they call you. We don’t care if they already know that – you’ll have to remind them each and every time they see your number. I know, very frustrating BUT we have our little idiosyncrasies. Oh, and you don’t have a choice, this is just how we do things.
      • You’ll also have to tell people in advance how many times each week or month you’re going to call them. We don’t care whether you know that or not – you’re just going to have to guess, but don’t guess wrong – you might get slapped with a fine.
  7. There is just one final, small condition: If you violate any of these rules at any time during probation we can turn off your number without warning, fine you about $10,000 and irreparably damage your business. And there’s no recourse – if we shut you off you have to do what we say or you won’t get turned back on. No exceptions, please.

Ok, great! Now that you understand all of the rules, how many lines would you like? How long are you on probation you ask. You will actually be on probation as long as you’re a customer. Yup, that’s right. You have to follow all these rules all the time.

This is ridiculous right? This is America, after all – this can’t be real. Well, that’s true in the world of “regular” phone numbers and service but in the world of text messaging and “short codes” (the 5-6 digit numbers used for business text messaging) this is unfortunately, exactly how it works. How would you like to run your business under these Draconian demands?

Given the restrictions, it’s practically a miracle that some text messaging companies are able to remain in business. In fact, many such businesses fail each year. The costs, limitations and tenuous existence imposed by the phone companies on businesses that use short codes for legitimate, important and in some cases life-saving services strangles the innovation and growth of the industry while enriching the few aggregator resellers that the phone companies have designated as their chosen partners.

Incredibly, the phone companies get away with this because they have set up a monopoly such that there is no other way to deliver an emergency alert, an authentication key or a promotional offer (which customers have requested to receive) to a cell phone via text message without going through this process.

It’s enough to make even the most litigation-averse companies sue the carriers and their self-enriching trade association.  So some have done so.

Last month, TextPower, Inc., Club Texting, Inc. and iSpeedBuy LLC filed class action complaints in federal court in Manhattan against AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, and “aggregators” that the carriers have designated as the sole distributors of short code numbers and messaging services.

That’s right – these companies are taking a stand. They don’t think it’s fair market practice to force pricing down everyone’s throat, demand pre-approval of the content to be sent, and be subject to losing their business at the whim of someone deep within a phone company who decides they don’t like what someone has tweeted or posted on their web site about their text messaging service.

And that’s no exaggeration – some of them have nearly been shut down because of what customers have innocently posted on their web sites or Twitter streams about their text messages.  And the case seems to be having some effect already, as the CTIA this month has announced a relaxation of some of the rules being challenged. This is a step forward but more change needs to come.

If your company uses or plans to use text messaging to communicate with customers, alert people to emergencies or deliver essential information, you might want to learn more about this case, which seeks to break the monopolistic hold that the wireless phone companies have over the text messaging industry. It’s time we got off probation.

About the Author

Greg is a mobile marketing consultant and recently launched the blog & web show, Mobile Mixed. Check it out for mobile marketing strategy tips and interviews with mobile marketing pro’s. Greg help businesses avoid the biggest mistake in mobile marketing.