Recently, I noticed that Google, search engines and even some browsers could not, with efficient accuracy, tell me the origin of Short Message Service (SMS, aka texting). I call this phenomenon the Truth of Majority Rules (ToMR), and it seems to be happening with more frequency.
While sufficient enough for most uses, I still say “no thank you” to this method of information dissemination. Access to correct information should not be limited to those with the wherewithal to look past the first page of search results, through Wikipedia, and on to DuckDuckGo. This is one motivation behind my exploration of mediated communications via the history and evolution of Telco systems. Another being an insatiable desire of late to discover the mechanisms behind my own reality. Eventually, after some “less efficient than I would have liked” research and cross-checking of facts with friends in the Telco industry, I compiled sufficient data for a story that I find even more fascinating than originally anticipated. A tale of cyber resilience via IT entropy and what it means for “Digital Transformation.”
The Very First Song broadcast by MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by a band called The Buggles, in 1981. I love this song. I wanted to find out whether its catchy post-pop-prophecy ever came to fruition; did video kill the Radio Star? What exactly is a “Radio Star” anyway? This is how I found myself home alone (again) on a Saturday night. Geeking. Out. I felt overwhelmed by the massively complex systems that both enable and dictate transformative forms of mediated communication. It feels like a saga of strangeness; discovering the unexpected from random interactions and unassuming catalysts. So, what does SMS have to do with “Radio Stars”, Amor Fati and IoT? An uncanny resilience in the face of competitive adversity stemming from consumer preference for emerging IP based applications. That’s what.
Short Message Service (according to my initial research) originated in 1982 with a simple message sent from one computer to another. At the time of introduction to the general public (closer to 1992), no one believed that SMS technology was anything to write home about. After all, why spend the effort spelling out a message when one could make a quick phone call and relay more information in a fraction of the time it would take to type? However, people are unpredictable entities, and today we observe the opposite of initial expectations.
Google et al., my apologies, but I disagree with ToMR. While yes, the majority of initial SMS adoption occurred as a means of notification for voicemail, this is not why SMS technology came to be. Short Message Services were conceived as both a solution to an escalating problem and an opportunity for network providers to generate additional profit. After all, modern societies’ mother of invention is certainly an enthusiastic capitalist. Even in the early 1980s, an excess of bandwidth within short-wave Radio signaling networks was presenting a veritable Pandora’s box for anyone trying to solve the problem using existing infrastructure. Thus, an idea was born. Introduce a new short-form communication style, call it a service, and monetize it.
From a profit perspective, the business of SMS proved an excellent strategy for Telco providers. So what exactly is it? SMS is based on Signaling System No. 7 (SS7). This set of telephony signaling protocols was actually developed in 1975. It is a framework for out-of-band signaling intended as support; covering routing, billing, and most information transfer functions pertaining to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). More simply Signaling System No. 7 is an intentional derivative result of energy transfer via short-wave Radio frequencies called “signals” (our Radio Stars). Technically, SS7 is also IP based… Sigtran however, is another story altogether.
Unsurprisingly, the monetary success of rampant SS7 based SMS texting spawned innovation resulting in a variety of centralized and decentralized messaging applications. Two former Yahoo! employees, for example, cashed in early and often after reimagining SMS as an IP protocol using the infrastructure already in place for a more recently adopted form of Information Technology transfer called the World Wide Web. This, of course, became WhatsApp, and for some reason, consumers could use the platform for free.
Part of the ingenuity behind the business model for WhatsApp (and certainly a reason for rapid assimilation) is that the service is advertised as free for consumers. This isn’t quite correct. WhatsApp monetizes their services for a healthy profit however the consumer does not pay for it with currency. They pay through the data of their conversations and mostly without their knowledge. This is the reason WhatsApp was purchased by Facebook for 21.8 billion US Dollars.
Even as the above facts gain mainstream recognition use of such services continues to expand. Realizing their inability to compete, Telco industry leaders believed that IP based message applications would certainly kill their SS7, SMS Radio Star. SMS, however, had no intention of fading silently into the night. Let’s take a closer look behind the scenes.
The two channels used for SMS and SMS-like communications differ in ways that many do not fully understand. SS7 is used to manage control traffic for mobile network signals (AKA Radiofrequency). SS7 embodies both styles of transmission and architectural infrastructures that affect end-to-end encryption and data accessibility. These important security and privacy related procedures are culturally anticipated but not necessarily present in conventional Internet (IP based) channels. It appears that most of the general public is either misinformed or simply does not realize the potential consequences of their decisions to use IP versus SS7 messaging channels. There are of course exceptions (also largely unconsidered) like iMessage. Thumbs up, Apple!
The implementation of A2P (Application to Person) messaging by major organizations like Google and Microsoft (just to name a few) begat the second life of SS7 based SMS. With A2P, a communication (text) must be initiated by an application as opposed to P2P (Peer to Peer) traffic in which both the sender and the receiver of a message are human. A2P systems needed to be secure. This is because they were implemented for purposes relating to the security of devices and data like 2FA (Two Factor Authentication) and password resets for anything from email to online banking. A2P business was not as profitable as the Golden Era of P2P messaging however it was enough for Telco operators to maintain the protocol. Most importantly, SMS survived via A2P because it was (and is) inherently linked to cybersecurity. simply put and with good reason, WhatsApp is not a secure enough channel for the purposes of A2P functions. As a side note, there is a technical curiosity about A2P SMS traffic. It is typically a form of IP end to end though not Sigtran or SS7 based. Rather it uses a protocol called SMPP (Short Message Peer-To-Peer).
In 2018 Google revealed plans for a hybrid messaging service based on Rich Communication Services (RCS). According to an article posted by Digital Trends RCS began development in 2007 however it appears that Google’s spin on the platform “[w]hich combines the best of Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and WhatsApp into one”, will provide proper infrastructure for the next paradigm shift in global text-based communication services; “[i]n 2018, Google announced it had been working with every major cell phone carrier in the world to adopt the RCS protocol. The result is Chat, a protocol based on RCS Universal Profile that will supersede SMS.” Cheers Google…
Personally, I won’t consent to use Chat without revision of many of Google, WhatsApp, Facebook, and others’ current data management policies. I’m addressing this issue as, although laws are in place to mitigate the sale of personal data, privacy remains a serious concern of mine and of cybersecurity experts; one that Google might choose to address in the near future, hopefully before RCS mass adoption.
Many turn to the past for indications of future human behaviors. If past behavior repeats in this case, many consumers will not realize that via RCS, Google, WhatsApps/other IP based messaging services, and every major cell phone carrier in the world could very well begin engaging in what is called Cooperative Marketing. ToMR defines this practice as “an agreement between two [or more] companies to promote or sell each other’s product while selling their own. The products can either be complementary or might have different seasonal cycles” (source). Cooperative Marketing is not illegal. However, selling data (the products of most companies involved in RCS) remains legal.
This story is starting to sound a bit Terminator(esque). As a geek, I understand that Cyberdyne Systems began with the best of intentions and I have faith in the many societal benefits which might arise from rapid mass adoption of Rich Communication Services later this year. With this said, I would love to keep the traditional SMS/SS7 protocol around. You know… Just in case. Fortunately, it turns out that an SMS annihilation pre-resurrection happens to already be taking place.
Almost certainly not. However, it is through the Internet of Things (IoT) that SMS, yet again, maintains viability and thus endurance in this age of Digital Transformation. IoT is to a large degree nothing new. In fact, it’s origins are older than the intentionally revised Unix Epoch date of January 1st, 1970; which predates Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) by two years. Odd, especially considering that the origins of IoT are understood to have begun over 100 years prior. I digress… Here are a few (but not all) interesting dates relating to the inception of IoT (courtesy of PostScapes.com’s History of IoT):
“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole… and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
As of about ten years ago, IoT devices had advanced enough for viability in areas difficult to access by humans as well as areas where the devices might have difficulty connecting to IT via SMS and/or IP services; for example countryside, remote, and/or rugged locations both above and underground.
Such IoT devices make use of telemetry, an automated communications process by which measurements and other small data packets are collected at remote or inaccessible points and transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring. These Applications highlighted an area in need of improvement; the battery requirements for bandwidth in IoT devices (especially those in remote access areas).
As discussed above, SMS uses our Radio Star (frequency style) communication system called signaling. Signaling consumes less power from IoT devices’ batteries in comparison to IP processes. This allows for a partial solution to the issue of battery life/bandwidth in IoT. It works because many devices are programmed to enter “sleep mode”. In order to “wake” these devices, a battery-friendly “Wake Up SMS” signal may be sent.
For Telco industry operators this is a justifiable (if less profitable) purpose to continue supporting SMS systems. Actually, innovation over the past several years shows that IoT systems present more than a placeholder for Radio signaling channels. This is evidenced by the emergence and adoption of a non-IP SMS mutation called NB-IoT. NB-IoT is compatible with but not based on IP protocols; presenting a wide world of new opportunity for SMS style Radio (Star) signaling.
Within NB-IoT world the same battery friendly objectives discussed above are achieved. NB-IoT is ideal for sparse information packet traffic such as geoposition, temperature, etc. More notable for this story, I think, is the way this new system mirrors yet another network variation—GSM.
GSM is a standard developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute for second generation digital cellular networks. It was deployed in Finland in 1991 and until recently was most applicable to mobile devices like cell phones and tablets; specifically, those enabled by iOS (interesting). NB-IoT is so similar, in fact, that the GSM network may actually gain worldwide relevance for new applications in IoT. Thus, not only has SMS style Radio signaling evaded extinction via NB-IoT, it may actually now be serving as a method of worldwide unification, or perhaps synchronization is a better descriptor.
To this end, and in lieu of describing NB-IoT as an SMS mutation, one might choose to consider it an element of a new form of symbiotic telecommunications cooperation. It functions using SCEF (Service Capability Exposure Function), a new GSM core network element. SCEF receives signaling (diameter in this case) from non-IP networks however packets travel over IP (similar to systems like MQTT and REST). Generating even more relevance for the case of our Radio Star, SCEF also makes use of compatible APIs to provide information, insights, and metadata to non-Telco customers like Microsoft Azure and AWS.
Through this comingling of networks, protocols, and environments, SMS Radio signaling systems, IoT, and Digital Transformation become universally bespoken. I believe that a combination of two concepts provides some closure for the end to this story (the greater story is, of course, far from over). Entropy (a lack of order or predictability), and Amor Fati (a Latin phrase meaning “love of one’s fate”) seem apt descriptors for human behavior in relation to SMS in its waltz through history with IP. One might also employ these concepts as a lens through which to view IT as it translates to Telco operations.
Through this lens, I see that, while IP may (rather adaptly) have removed SMS from the limelight, it did not kill our Radio Star. It looks to me like Telco, IP, Cloud, and Big Data systems have converged around RF transmission, providing a paradigm of continuous reinvention, ultimate cooperation and integration. Perhaps a solution to ToMR (and perhaps not), I consider this emerging system to be the heart and soul of Digital Transformation. Courtesy again of PostScapes.com’s history of the Internet of Things, I will end this story ten years after MTV laid a cultural foundation for both IP protocol and the World Wide Web by revolutionizing consumer interaction with Cable Television. In 1991, Mark Weiser made a prophetic statement about Information Technology in his Scientific American article on ubiquitous computing, “The Computer for the 21st Century”. He said:
“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
To me, these words describe not only what has occurred with, but also the true nature of short-wave frequency based signaling systems, or as I like to call them, Radio Stars.
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