Short Code Provisioning: Something Has To Give

(The following is a guest column from Jared Reitzin, CEO and founder of mobileStorm.)

As I sit here and write this, T-Mobile’s provisioning tool is still broken and has been for almost two months. I have received no updates that would make me think this will get resolved anytime soon. I also have clients who have been waiting more than three months to have AT&T approve their short codes. Then just to make things a little easier, Verizon thought it would be the perfect time to start charging a three-cent CPM for text messages. On top of all this, we are approaching the holiday season—during which time provisioning usually comes to a standstill. This is a dark time for mobile, no?

Once, we could confidently tell customers that we could have their non-premium short code up and running in four to six weeks. Those days are gone, my friend—and forget about it if you think you can get a premium code approved in less than 10 weeks. I have been told that people are selling short codes that have been approved for premium for tens of thousands of dollars.

So here is the deal. The reason Verizon wanted to charge three cents per message, and the reason short code provision is taking way longer than it ever has before, is because this industry is growing—fast. I understand all about growing pains, as I have been running mobileStorm for the last nine years. However, if you want to be successful, you have to work through these pains.

Think about how archaic the current short code provisioning system is right now. First, you buy a code that costs $500 or $1,000 per month. This is already 100 times more expensive than a website URL. Why is it that expensive? For starters, there are only 88,000 combinations of five- to six-digit numbers, so it’s a supply and demand issue. OK, so what happens when we go to “short code 2.0”? Like IPv6, we could make short codes alphanumeric, or at least extend short codes to “middle codes” and make them seven or eight digits long.

After you have purchased your expensive code, you have to fill out a very long form online, and wait 24 to 48 hours to see if NeuStar will approve you. If you are approved, you then work with an aggregator or micro-aggregator (like mobileStorm) to talk to the carriers on your behalf. Typically, aggregators make you fill out another long form, along with a complete overview of your intended SMS campaign flow, to help ensure your application is approved.

Unfortunately, due to the inefficiencies of this entire process, you can wait weeks before even hearing a single update as to your provisioning status. This also assumes that everything you submitted is correct. If there is a single error, you go back to the bottom of the pile in most cases with the carriers, leading to potentially even longer delays.

Isn’t SMS the biggest source of revenue for a carrier right now? I know it trumps voice. So why would a revenue stream that’s so important continue to have such an antiquated process? Look, I am not saying some of these changes can happen overnight, but I have not heard any reports of carriers looking to make serious improvements to the process. Software can be written quickly these days and for not a lot of money. For example, at mobileStorm we auto-deny email database uploads that we feel could have been purchased lists. There are about 50 different types of criteria we review and this all happens with minimal human interaction. Why can’t a system like this be created for short codes?

Here are four ideas to bring short code provisioning into the 21st century:

1. Standardize Terms: Provisioned, certified, tested, approved. Why do these terms mean different things for different carriers? Can we just all agree upon a set of terms that everyone uses?
2. Decrease Costs: Maybe we cannot make short codes as cheap as Godaddy domains, but what about $50 or $100 per month? By lowering the cost you will allow more people in the game. We should also look into making codes longer or alphanumeric.
3. Reduce Launch Time: All non-premium SMS short codes should get approved and provisioned within a week. Since NeuStar is the governing body of short codes, why not extend its reach to include the carrier reviews? That way, you would apply with NeuStar; get your code tested; and make it live in less than a week. Imagine how much more business would be out there. Also, memo to NeuStar: For the time being, don’t charge anyone for the license of their code until the code is in production; it’s just not fair.
4. Create Testing Tools: The Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) should work with NeuStar to create a set of tools, or an emulator that allows you to enter in your message flow and test to make sure it is MMA and carrier compliant.

Anybody else have any good ideas? I would love to hear from you. Maybe we can even get a carrier to comment?

Jared Reitzin