Why is SMS texting a mess? Fixing it is harder than you think.

By Delia Paunescu

Ben Affleck was seen texting on an iPhone 11 Pro in Los Angeles recently.
BG004/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

On November 7, 2019, more than 168,000 people woke up to find that text messages they thought they’d sent on Valentine’s Day in fact were only just delivered overnight, nine months later. The snafu became a nightmare scenario for many.

Blair Hickman, Vox’s director of audience, was one of those people. On this episode of the Reset podcast, Hickman tells host Arielle Duhaime-Ross how she found out her February text had only just arrived to her now-ex’s phone at 3 am the night before.

So, Thursday morning, I was out walking my dog, and I got a text from my ex — and we haven’t talked since June. All the text said was, “Ha ha. I don’t think this was for me, but I hope it was at least a pumpernickel bagel.” It’s like, I don’t understand. I hadn’t texted him, so it was just out of nowhere.

I said, “I don’t know what this is about.” He sent me a screenshot of his text messages, and there had been a text from me at 3:36 am that morning, and it said in all caps “AND A FUCKING BAGEL” with like six exclamation points.

The confusion shed light on the fact that the SMS (short message service) texting technology we use every day — and more than likely take for granted — is actually quite old as far as technologies go.

Carriers rely on third-party vendors to actually deliver the messages. And in the case of the Valentine’s Day glitch, a company called Syniverse, which provides networking services, took the blame for the messages being delayed. They say it happened because a server malfunctioned on February 14. Then when the server was fixed on November 17, all of the trapped messages were finally sent out.

It’s because of trouble like this that many consumers are switching to richer messaging services like WhatsApp, iMessage, Signal, and even Facebook Messenger. But the truth is, SMS is universal. Because it works on nearly every phone, regardless of data capabilities, it’s become the most popular messaging service in the world.

Dieter Bohn, executive editor at The Verge, explains exactly what the technical issues with SMS technology are both from a user perspective and from the viewpoint of the app itself:

“Text messages are such a primitive technology that’s just unencrypted text going out over the network. It runs through servers and different carriers have different policies about how long they hang onto those messages. In theory, all those messages should have just like gone into the ether, but in practice, they got stuck on a server. ...

What everybody wants is to get on to some sort of universal system that actually is more secure than SMS but also has all of those [modern messaging] features.”

One possible fix for these issues is a technology called RCS (rich communication services), but it’s not going to be perfect. Bohn says that although RCS is a much better experience, it probably won’t be encrypted, creating privacy issues.

“[Carriers will] be allowed to potentially see the images that are sent. They could see what’s going on in group texts. To be clear, there’s no technical reason that RCS couldn’t be end-to-end encrypted. They’ve just chosen not to,” Bohn pointed out.

Later in the episode, Lloyd Cotler, co-founder of Banter Messaging — an agency that helps organizations talk to customers through SMS — reveals what it was like to be the first-ever SMS director for a political campaign when he worked for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It’s basically a direct communication from either the candidate or representative of the campaign to voters who are supporting them or want to learn more. So folks kind of text in, they join the list the same way they would go to a website and fill out their email or sign a petition. You ask them their name, address, zip code. And then basically, you just start texting them.

Cotler praises text campaigning for allowing candidates to reach constituents they might not normally be able to find on the ground, whether it’s because they live in remote places, don’t answer phone calls, or are deaf or hearing-impaired.

SMS is really just the most common denominator that everybody can be a part of. Think about who you text in your own life — it’s your friends, your family, people that you’re very close with. So if an organization can achieve that level of intimacy with you, I think that’s great.

But how will the change to RCS texting impact political campaigns and their constituents in the future?

To find out more about the trouble of SMS technology and what to expect from texting in the future, listen to the entire discussion here. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of Bohn’s conversation with Duhaime-Ross.

You can subscribe to Reset on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Dieter Bohn

I was really surprised SMS has been around for so long. It’s the sort of thing that you think you can just take for granted. But it turns out that it is way more complicated and complex than we realized.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

So why did this Valentine’s day SMS snafu happen?

Dieter Bohn

When you send a text message, your phone carrier doesn’t necessarily know where it’s supposed to go just by from the phone numbers. They have this thing called an interconnect word, like all the carriers talk to each other. And there are companies that sit in the middle and handle that.

One of these companies is called Syniverse. They they claim to handle something in the neighborhood of 600 billion messages a year. And they are one of the companies that make sure that an SMS goes from one place to another.

This company had a server malfunction on Valentine’s Day, of all days. And instead of the messages just disappearing, [nine] months later they went to go check out the server, got it fixed, then all of sudden all these messages went out.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Most people don’t think about their SMS text messages being shared with anybody other than the recipient and maybe the carrier, right?

Dieter Bohn

That’s what you expect. But in fact, text messages are such a primitive technology that that’s just unencrypted text going out over the network. So it just runs through servers and different carriers have different policies about how long they hang onto those messages. In theory, all those messages should have just gone into the ether but in practice, they got stuck on a server.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

What does that tell you about privacy and SMS?

Dieter Bohn

Privacy in SMS is not great. But privacy in general with cell phone carriers, especially in the US, is also not great.

They are more than willing to respond to sorts of questions from the government, whether they’re subpoenaed and sometimes if not. They maintain lots of metadata, which is the information on who you talk to and when.

And some [carriers] do hang on to the actual content of your text messages on their servers for a while and can serve those up to the government if asked.

What did the carriers say when all of these stories started popping up about Valentine’s Day texts that are months old?

Dieter Bohn

They really didn’t want to get into it [or] reveal the complicated ways that these companies actually have to interact with each other.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Obviously, this Valentine’s Day thing has taken up quite a bit of room sort of on the internet. People are talking about it. But do you think this kind of thing happens more often than we know about?

Dieter Bohn

If it happened this regularly at this scale — the most recent estimate was it was 170,000 messages, which adds up to over 300,000 people affected by this — that’s a lot.

It probably happens on a much smaller scale more often. But we don’t have numbers for it. And the carriers, given their terse response to this, certainly aren’t interested in sharing it with us.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Why doesn’t SMS work very well all the time?

Dieter Bohn

SMS doesn’t work very well all the time because it often runs over the cellular network. So they just can’t build all the extra information in that you’d want from modern messaging service.

You don’t have a read receipt, so you don’t know if your message was received. You can’t send photos. Group chats turn into hellacious disasters all of the time. So everything that feels like it’s a modern messaging experience there is actually just sort of a hack that was built on top of SMS.

What everybody wants is to get on to some universal system that actually is more secure than SMS, but also has all of those other features.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Are there any plans to make SMS better?

Dieter Bohn

There is a plan to make SMS better. It’s been around a long time. It’s called RCS, which stands for Rich Communication Services. Google’s been trying really hard to have this adopted, because then [Google’s phone software] Android would have a good text messaging app by default. But a lot of the carriers have been dragging their feet on adopting it because it’s a lot of extra work to implement this thing. And SMS has been treating them just fine up until now.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

That seems like a big deal. What does that actually mean? What is RCS?

Dieter Bohn

It follows that same model as SMS where there’s different carriers that control their own servers but they do a better job of talking to each other. And it’s more advanced, which means that you can get most of the modern features you expect from a text messaging app like reader seats, like high quality photos, videos, and really good group chats.

It’s a much better experience so long as the phone you’re using and the phone you’re talking to both have it turned on by their carrier. Up until relatively recently, that’s been a crapshoot. It’s actually still a crapshoot. But starting [in 2020], the four major carriers in the US promise that they’re going to make it universal.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Who are the carriers that are involved with this?

Dieter Bohn

Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T.

It’s called the CCMI, Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative. It’s a joint venture or two completely separate companies that all four of these companies have agreed to work with. It’s going to spin up the RCS server and it’s going to make sure that all of these phones that are on these networks are going to be old to have this more advanced messaging protocol.

Unfortunately, it also is probably going to mean that a lot of Android phones are going to have an app that’s made by the CCMI. And that’s troubling because historically the apps that carriers make are — what’s the word — terrible?

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Given that track record, how hopeful are you that RCS will actually be something that people want to use and should use?

Dieter Bohn

I am more hopeful than you might expect. For one, Google — which controls 80 to 90 percent of the smartphones on the planet, that’s how big Android is — they have a vested interest in making sure that this is not a crappy experience because the crappier the default texting experiences on Android, the more likely people are going to go to get an iPhone. So they hopefully will put some pressure on the carriers to do this right.

The most crucial thing that people should pay attention to with the advent of RCS is whether or not anybody starts saying anything about encryption and specifically end to end encryption, because that’s the kind of encryption that guarantees that only the sending phone and receiving phone can decrypt the message and see what’s on it.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Right now it looks like RCS probably won’t be encrypted. Is there actually a chance that carriers will be able to get even more information from users through RCS?

Dieter Bohn

There’s definitely a chance they could get more information from users using RCS. They’ll be allowed to potentially see the images that are sent. They’ll know when read receipts went back. They could see what’s going on in group texts. It’s unlikely the carriers are actually going to be like actively reading your conversations. to be clear, there’s no technical reason that RCS couldn’t be end to end encrypted. They’ve just chosen not to.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

SMS will keep existing at least for a while. Is that important?

Dieter Bohn

It matters insofar as as sort of the universal fallback. There are a bunch of things that can fall back to SMS if an IP-based data message doesn’t go through. Some emergency alerts, if it can’t get out over a data connection, might end up getting sent over a text message. And to be blunt, that’s one of the reasons why I’m actually pretty angry about this Valentine’s Day text message screw up.

If you’re not sending text messages — the thing that we all believe we can fall back on and rely on — you need to be much more transparent about that, because it’s one thing to get a text from your ex, it’s another thing to not get a text from the local fire department or your doctor or something else.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

So depending on your phone carrier, the default texting app that you use could change because of this upgrade and it’ll let you send richer text messages — that could also further compromise your privacy. Funny how that happens, right?

And in some ways the upgrade makes sense because as Dieter mentioned, the tech that powers text messages is old and definitely due for an update.

But here’s the thing: Plain old dumpster-fire SMS text messages are actually super-important technology.

To find out how SMS texting impacts political campaigns, listen to the full episode and subscribe to Reset on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.