The World of Mobile Messaging: Expect the Unexpected

8 min read

If coming from outside the world of mobile messaging, you may quite logically assume that organisations wishing to engage with their clients/prospective clients and (an oft-forgotten element) their own team members would source this type of solution from the same organisations who invariably provide their staff with mobile devices and associated connectivity, i.e. mobile network operators (MNOs). You would be wrong.

The structure of our industry is not always logical or easy to comprehend given the many protagonists involved and all the competing (often opposed) interests in play at the same time. MNOs do not have it all their own way as a result. Many lack the expertise, tools, and resources in this specific area to be leading players. Most left the field wide open years ago, and the void was rapidly filled. There are hundreds of third-party messaging providers out there, some of which have built up strong positions.

The rise of the aggregators

Acting as bridges between MNOs and brands — and providing the majority of today’s global mobile connectivity — some of these messaging companies now have well over a decade of experience under their belts. Many have put together exhaustive libraries of use cases for all major industry verticals, acting as far more than just basic suppliers; they are essentially consultants and, in many ways, operate like marketing agencies, providing organisations with real guidance on how best to engage with people in practically any given situation. Additionally, some work directly with MNOs to ensure all their inbound messaging traffic is monetised and unsolicited content (spam) removed.

We are talking here principally about messaging aggregators and hubs, and GMS is one of these companies. GMS has been around since 2006, and like a number of hubbing and messaging providers we count both enterprises and MNOs as clients. Both come with their competing pressures, which can create some real friction, and balancing their interests is often challenging. Some say perhaps impossible. But why?

A precarious situation

Time and again enterprises say they are looking for both high-quality connectivity and outstanding service, all at the lowest possible price. Taken in isolation, there is a real juxtaposition here already. Factor in the seeming unrelenting competition between many aggregators to meet clients often unrealistic target pricing requests and the issue becomes even murkier: in their race to win and satisfy enterprises, some providers sacrifice the interests of the operators. And remember, the product in question (mobile content delivery) unequivocally drives real, quantifiable value to the lives of mobile subscribers globally. So why then this race to the bottom? A curious phenomenon we are yet to truly fathom ourselves.

The situation is made yet more complicated given the former ‘traditional’ structure of mobile messaging has become very blurred. MNOs, aggregators, and enterprises. Some MNOs are also aggregators. Meanwhile, some aggregators have set up as MNOs/MVNOs to exploit the opportunities their allocated number ranges provide. And some enterprises approach mobile engagement exactly as an aggregator would, having their own network infrastructure and direct A2P (Application-to-Person) SMS MNO connections.

The root of the problem

To get to the bottom of what is going on, ascertain if the situation is sustainable, see what the future may hold, and identify what the key elements to being a successful aggregator could be, we need to start by taking a look back in time…

The journey towards the more than 1,000 MNOs that exist across the world today began with a single step: back in 1979 when NTT deployed the first analog cellular network (1G) in Japan. The standardised communication protocols enabling SMS were defined soon after in 1985 as part of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) series of standards.

That’s 34 years ago. The simple truth is that the following fact left the door ajar initially, allowing third-parties to come in and spoil the MNOs’ party for many years (and all without most MNOs realising): GSM is optimised for telephony. That’s it.

SMS was designed to use as little network resource as possible, transporting messages on the signalling paths needed to control the telephone traffic during periods when no signalling traffic existed. In this way, unused resources in the system could be used to transport messages at minimal cost. There was no requirement for inbound SMS traffic to have to route through an MNO’s SMSC on the way through to the destination subscribers.

Some switched-on companies realised that by gaining access to the signalling (SS7) network MNOs used, they would be able to deliver marketing and transactional content via SMS around the world, and almost totally for free. MNOs were making a lot of money from Person-to-Person (P2P) SMS, and their attention was very much on ensuring their subscribers had service across as many countries as possible. As fast as they developed this international P2P connectivity, international A2P traffic flowed. And very few had any inkling of this so-called grey route traffic.

Unfortunately, signalling connection taps remain open until the far end destination points close them. Mobile operators need to be able to control all aspects of these flows to have any chance of successfully monetising A2P SMS, limiting spam, and so on. Until companies like GMS came along offering SMS firewalls and associated GMS Messaging Protection, little had been done.

How to react?

It is fair comment that a good portion of the historical profit generated by aggregators from A2P SMS delivery came from their use of the SS7 (grey) routes already described. Some proactive third-party providers like GMS have pointed out to MNOs exactly how they are leaking money. This is not to say the message has always hit home. Some have ignored our advice while others, although recognising there is an issue that needs addressing, nevertheless feel pressure to apply other business priorities, such as their rollout of 5G or capturing more market share in the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT).

There are no set rules here which determine how MNOs of different sizes will react. MNOs both small and large can and do have the same attitudes towards A2P SMS, whether positive, negative, or indeed indifferent. This leads to understandable frustrations from many quarters. Some MNOs with subscriber bases in the tens of millions have only three or four people managing all aspects of A2P SMS, and their hard work and efforts to increase its profile internally often go ignored.

If an MNO chooses to overlook the importance of managing and protecting A2P, then what incentive is there for an aggregator to maintain the virtuous high ground and not use grey routes to access that MNO? (And all while others continue terminating traffic into them hand over fist.) On the face of it very little but reputation comes at a price: at the end of the day, we all have clients’ requirements to meet. This state of affairs leads to huge conflicts of interest across the industry.

Just as some of us in the industry proactively protect MNOs by helping them eliminate unsolicited traffic and access via the back door, others gladly continue to exploit these weaknesses. As long as Enterprises have their traffic delivered rapidly, and conversion rates are high, most do not question how this traffic gets delivered. However, they should. All routes are most definitely not built equal. Data protection is becoming a huge issue, and with fines like the one British Airways was hit with on July 8th to the tune of £184 million, enterprises really need to sit up and look at whom they are trusting with their data.

GMS offers MNOs an A2P SMS firewall and monetisation solution as part of our comprehensive suite of GMS Messaging Protection; threats and challenges evolve and leveraging the intelligence we gain from having a global footprint allows us to seize the initiative, getting ahead of potential problems and protecting our clients.  GMS provides total visibility across all connections (whether SS7 or SMPP), accurate SMS filtering (differentiating between P2P, A2P, marketing, transactional, spam, and more) and advise MNOs as to how to best price their traffic for maximum monetisation.

Adapting to the multichannel world

Meanwhile, SMS is not the only A2P channel around. It is safe to say that the world of mobile engagement is in reboot mode — and with good reason.

Many channels beyond SMS are now available to businesses to deliver engaging content promptly: push messaging, messaging apps (the likes of WhatsApp, Viber, and WeChat), RCS (Rich Communication Services), voice and email to name but a few. Together they form the world of multichannel messaging, and more and more aggregators are getting involved.

This is not unexpected, however. At the turn of the century, McKinsey predicted that no more than a third of big corporations would survive the following 25 years. To survive, companies must learn to run their businesses more like markets, adapting and enhancing their offerings rapidly. In a market the only indicator of success is how fast things are flying off the shelves. But at what price? Ethics cast aside? Markets destabilised and a proliferation of obfuscation? Can messaging providers with a conscience compete effectively with those prepared to engage in what some may call ‘dark arts’ going forward? Well, we here at GMS think they can and furthermore, they are the real future.

Consider just how many of those previously mentioned channels rely on operators. Even email, when delivered to a mobile inbox, uses data services provided by operators. Operators are crucial, but do they benefit commensurably? GMS aims to support both MNOs and enterprises in a way that creates a genuinely secure messaging ecosystem. While the rates GMS offers our enterprise clients may not be the absolute cheapest available, they are conversely more reliable and safer because of our commitment to avoiding — and actively closing — grey routes.

Honesty is the best policy

Education is at the heart of all sustainable and economic development. GMS invests a lot in meeting MNOs and enterprises globally, pushing the importance of clean SMS/messaging channels for the long-term prosperity of all stakeholders in the telecom ecosystem. Bringing real clarity of purpose and supporting both MNOs and enterprises with all their requirements in the most comprehensive ways possible (strategy, platforms, technical and commercial support) are central to our ethos.

GMS forecasts a mobile messaging future quite different from that of today. Increasing regulation will be coming into play globally, and we see the rate of industry consolidation accelerating. Successful companies of the future will understand that forging genuine partnerships with both MNOs and enterprises is the way forward. The more mobile engagement channel options there are coming into play, the greater the clarity messaging solutions providers will have with which to speak to the market.

The message then is clear: the level of confusion and seeming obfuscation that abounds in the market needs to be reduced for the benefit of all. GMS is doing its bit. Are you?

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