The Uses of SMS

During my travels through South Africa, I was consistently surprised by the extent of coverage of my Vodocom cell phone. From the tip of the Cape of Good Hope to remote mountain passes over two hours’ drive from Cape Town, my Nokia cell phone always reported a strong signal.

Perhaps I should not be surprised – mobile phones enjoy broader use in South Africa than they do in the United States. While the U.S. market is much larger, its mobile penetration rate is around 77%, compared with over 80% in South Africa. The trend was noticed by the New York Times, who described in 2005 some of the myraid ways cell phones were changing life for poor Africans. When it comes to the internet, however, the country lags far behind the U.S. Despite recent growth, roughly 10% of South Africans are internet users compared with 70% of Americans.

Virtually all South African mobile phones support sending SMS text messages, and in general these messages cost less than a 1 minute call. The political impact of widespread SMS use around the world has been well documented, and most recently I saw this story about the use of SMS to organize opposition to a chemical factory in China. What I found interesting in South Africa was the host of SMS applications beyond one-to-one messages:

  • The newspaper invited responses to news story by SMS, and published the responses with the sender’s names in a regular column.
  • A fast food restaurant asked patrons to SMS the name of the branch and a rating of their experience (1 to 5). Similarly, the airport distributed a card with a series of questions on it, and respondents could either return the card or SMS their answers in a numeric format.
  • Car dealerships had signs instructing interested passersby to send an SMS and a salesman would answer with a call.
  • A soap company held a raffle – to enter, you just had to SMS the unique number on your box.
  • A late-night TV ad for a men’s sexual health supplement invited viewers to SMS “help” to their number to learn more.

It was recently reported demand for phones in China, India, and Africa has pushed worldwide usage to over 3 billion. Although SMS applications like the ones above may be driven by limited internet use, SMS enjoys certain advantages over both the web and voice calls — namely low cost, ease of use, and high mobility — that mean we should expect continued expanded use. What new applications have you seen lately?

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. In Ireland you can text a number with the name of a DART (light rail) stop and it will give you the times/destinations of the next few trains stopping there.

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