The ABCs of A2P SMS messaging – and why it matters

The ever-resilient SMS industry has had a pretty busy start to 2013.

August 13, 2013

By Dr Pieter Streicher, Managing Director

The ever-resilient SMS industry has had a pretty busy start to 2013. Firstly, messaging via mobile applications such as WhatsApp has cannibalised a large portion of person-to-person (P2P) SMS messaging. This left application-to-person (A2P) SMS messaging as the only hope for operators to profit from their SMS messaging infrastructure. Since Cell C started terminating A2P SMS messages on all networks in the absence of any SMS interconnect fees, the bigger operators were forced to call for SMS interconnect fees for A2P SMS messaging if they were to retain any A2P SMS messaging revenue. Most networks have now signed SMS interconnect agreements, and these have been lodged with ICASA.

In light of this, it is worth reminding ourselves about the difference between P2P messaging and A2P messaging. The distinction between the two is not as straightforward as you might think and getting this wrong can be pretty disastrous for operators. For instance poor wording of the definition of A2P messaging in the initial interconnect agreements in South Africa resulted in the newly-licensed smaller operators being able to send hundreds of millions of A2P SMS messages for free.

One way of defining SMS messages is according to their intention. One could say that if the intention is for personal communication, then it is a P2P message. But if the intention is to sell or promote something, it is an A2P message. These definitions are problematic for several reasons. Firstly, not all messages sent by companies via high volume SMS applications are to sell you something: think of dentists’ appointment reminders and banks’ one-time passwords.

Also, does that mean if I SMS you from my cell phone to arrange a coffee date it’s a P2P message, but if I SMS you to see if you would like to buy my laptop, it’s an A2P message? Finally, defining SMS messages based on intention would be impossible to manage. Messages would have to be read in order for a network to determine the nature of the SMS. This would violate privacy laws.

Fortunately, we have ended up with a technical definition of A2P vs. P2P messages. They are defined according to their provenance – where they originate. All messages that do not originate from a valid mobile device with a valid SIM card are regarded as A2P messages (excluding only Call Me messages). Messages that DO originate from a valid mobile device with a valid SIM card are regarded as P2P messages subject to certain traffic limits setting the threshold of acceptable use. So if messages are sent via a mobile device, and that device sends in excess of 50 messages an hour, they are again classed as A2P messages. Verifying IMSI (International Mobile Standard Equipment Identity) and IMEI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) numbers, mobile network operators can identify valid handsets and valid SIM cards.

Since operators will now pay more attention to the origin of messages (so they are able to bill for A2P messages) they will also be better equipped to deal with SMS spam, scams and fraud. SMS messages classed as A2P are subject to a range of acts (including the ECT, CPA and POPI). This legislation covers mobile marketing messages and the collection, storage and use of personal information.

The network’s practice of defining SMS messaging technically, as where they are coming from, is good news for businesses using SMS for operational and marketing communications. This means that industry standards and regulations for A2P messaging are in place and that all businesses have a level playing field from which to implement SMS messaging as a reliable channel to deliver timeous communications to customers, clients or suppliers.