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Do all text messaging systems use SMS?

Text messaging has become an integral part of modern communication. With the rise of smartphones, most people now have access to some form of text messaging system. However, there are actually many different types of text messaging systems and protocols. So do they all rely on SMS (Short Message Service)? Let’s take a closer look.

What is SMS?

SMS stands for Short Message Service. It is a protocol that allows for the sending and receiving of short text messages on mobile networks. SMS was first deployed in 1992 by Radiolinja in Finland. It eventually became the default global standard for text messaging.

With SMS, each text message can contain up to 160 characters. The 160 character limit was put in place because SMS messages originally used the same communication channel as numeric paging systems. SMS messages are sent over the signaling channels that cell phones use to communicate with cell towers.

How does SMS work?

When you send an SMS message, your phone forwards the message to your cell provider’s SMS center (SMSC). The SMSC then delivers the message to the recipient’s wireless provider’s SMSC, which then delivers it to the recipient’s device. So SMS uses a store-and-forward model, rather than establishing a dedicated end-to-end connection like a phone call.

SMS communication between devices and SMS centers utilizes a set of protocols called SS7 (Signaling System 7). Different protocols are used to communicate SMS messages between the SMS centers of different providers.

The prevalence of SMS text messaging

SMS took off in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially among teenagers and young adults. By 2010, SMS was by far the most widely used data service, with an estimated 3.5 billion active users, or about 80% of all mobile subscribers. As of 2014, Americans were sending and receiving some 900,000 SMS messages every second.

Even as mobile internet and smartphones have become more common, SMS has remained hugely popular, especially in developing nations. It’s estimated that there are currently about 5 billion active SMS users worldwide, sending over 8 trillion messages per year.

The rise of IP-based messaging systems

While SMS has continued thriving, the past decade has also seen the rise of IP-based instant messaging apps that can send texts over mobile internet connections, rather than through the SMS protocol. Some popular examples include WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Telegram, Signal, Line, and WeChat.

Because these OTT (over-the-top) messaging apps use data channels rather than SMS, they offer several advantages:

  • No character limit on messages
  • Media attachments like photos and videos can be sent
  • Group chats are easier to manage
  • Messages are delivered and read immediately rather than on a delay
  • Encryption for secure messaging is standard
  • Cross-platform synchronization between devices

However, virtually all of these IP-based messaging apps still support SMS as well, for broader compatibility and reaching contacts who don’t have the app installed. But the messages sent within the app utilize data connectivity rather than SMS.

The divide between SMS and IP messaging

In general, there is a divide between the usage of SMS and IP messaging apps:

  • SMS continues to dominate for one-to-one messaging in many regions, especially among basic phone users, older demographics, and in developing nations where smartphone and mobile internet adoption is still low.
  • IP messaging apps are more popular among younger smartphone users and in developed nations with higher mobile internet penetration rates.

But this generalization certainly doesn’t apply across the board. For example, WhatsApp now has over 2 billion monthly active users worldwide, so it has very broad adoption spanning both smartphones and older basic phones.

Do all text messaging systems use SMS?

With this background in mind, it’s clear that SMS is not universally used across all text messaging systems and apps, especially among smartphone users in developed nations where mobile internet is ubiquitous.

However, it’s also true that the vast majority of text messaging systems continue to have SMS capability even if they also offer IP-based messaging. Why is this?

  • Maintaining interoperability with basic phones that only have SMS.
  • Reaching users who don’t have enough data allowance or mobile internet coverage to use IP messaging.
  • Providing fallback to SMS when mobile data is unavailable.
  • Supporting communication with users on other messaging platforms who only have SMS capability.

So in summary, while IP-based messaging apps are taking over among tech-savvy users, SMS is still going strong as a universal fallback option. Most messaging platforms continue supporting it for broader compatibility. But strictly speaking, not all modern text messaging relies on the SMS system.

The changing role of SMS

Looking ahead, what is the future role of SMS in the messaging landscape?

Many expect that SMS usage will continue declining, especially in developed countries where mobile internet penetration is nearing saturation. As more people upgrade to smartphones globally, IP-based messaging apps will likely take over more of the traffic that currently relies on SMS.

However, SMS is not going away anytime soon. It still offers unique advantages that ensure it will remain relevant for years to come:

  • Universal reach – SMS can communicate with anyone on any cell network and nearly any phone.
  • Reliability – SMS has very reliable delivery, while IP messages may fail if there is no data connectivity.
  • Simplicity – SMS is easy to use on basic phones with numeric keypads.
  • Lightweight – SMS messages are very small and use minimal network resources.

As a result, SMS will continue to play an important role as a fallback and universal communication system, even as other messaging services grow more popular for daily communication between mobile users.


In conclusion, while SMS was once the only text messaging option, IP-based messaging apps now dominate among smartphone and tech-savvy users, especially in developed countries. However, the vast majority of modern messaging systems continue to support SMS alongside IP messaging due to its universal reach.

SMS remains popular for one-to-one communication in developing nations and among basic phone users worldwide. It offers unique advantages like reliability, simplicity, and interoperability with any phone. Therefore, while not all text messaging relies on SMS today, it remains an important and complementary system that will continue serving an essential role for worldwide communication into the foreseeable future.