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The Thumb Generation

We've come to understand that cell phones are here to stay. But right around the time we accepted the fact of people talking on their phones in public, people stopped using their phones for verbal communication. Instead, it seems, everybody and his dog are typing on teensy little numbered pads and sending out text messages. Called the SMS, this type of communication has heralded a new era for those who prefer typing over talking.

The letters SMS stand for, "short message service." This is the system of communication whereby users can send text between two cell phones, or from a personal computer to a cell phone. The word "short" refers to the fact that such messages are limited to 160 characters in the Latin alphabet, including spaces and punctuation. In other languages, the character limits are different. For instance, Chinese SMS's are limited to 70 characters.

The Drawbacks

One of the drawbacks of the SMS is that there is often a delay between the sending and receiving of messages. To understand why this is so, you need a basic understanding of how cell phones relay information. Even when your phone is silent, there is a constant process going on of sending and receiving information. Your phone communicates its position to its cell phone tower by way of a control channel. Packets of data are exchanged on a regular basis to assure that all is working as it should.

The control channel is also essential for those times you receive a call. When someone calls you, the tower sends your phone a message through the control channel telling your phone to play a ring tone and designates two voice channel frequencies for your call.

The very same control channel gives your text messages a pathway for traveling to another phone. However, an SMS first goes to a message center, and then on to the cell phone tower, and only then to the control channel. The tower then sends the message on to your friend's phone. Your message arrives as a small packet of data over the control channel.

The Rub

And therein lies the rub: your message may not go through fast. When there is high phone traffic, it could be minutes or even many hours before your message gets through.

Besides, you have to pay for your messaging. Most of the wireless companies have plans that give a flat rate for a specified number of text messages per month. Other companies only charge you for the messages you send, while other companies charge you for incoming messages, too. Often companies have a set fee assigned to messages exceeding their specified limit. Some companies charge a 10 cents overcharge. Those overcharges can add up to a significant sum over time. 

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