Sizing up SMS

With the convergence of IT and telecommunications in companies of all sizes, the ability to integrate short message service (SMS) functionality into business applications is more appealing that ever. SMS can extend the reach of information management to far beyond the firewall.

When Adelaide City Council (ACC) wanted to reduce the levels of paper and electronic mail it sent to members of its library services, it investigated SMS.

In October last year the council implemented a service to its Library customers using SMS to advise when a requested library item became available. Previously members were sent such advice by post or via e-mail.

Nigel Morris, IT commercial applications for information management team leader at Adelaide City council, said the introduction of SMS allowed a more rapid turnover of the library's 130,000 item collection, because customers receiving immediate, and timely, notification instead of waiting for the post or the next time they checked their e-mail.

"Often customers are already out and about in the city when an SMS notification is received and are able to go to the library straight away to pick up the item," Morris said. "People's physical and e-mail addresses change and [often] are not updated, but mobile phone numbers usually stay the same. With the use of SMS our notification is generally always received."

The library advised all its members who had a mobile phone number recorded in its database and, because most agreed to use the service, uptake has been "rather successful".

"We are now sending more than 5000 SMS messages a month," Morris said.

"With the introduction of SMS it was envisaged the cost of [postage] would be reduced with a letter costing 50 cents and an SMS 18 cents. This proved successful but what we also found was those previously receiving e-mails, which cost near to nothing, preferred SMS which came at a cost."

To integrate SMS functionality into its lending system, the council adapted a series of SQL scripts provided by another council to meet its needs and used a Data Transformation Services (DTS) package to export the data to an external communications provider which sends the SMS messages daily.

"It was not very difficult to achieve, but with SMS messages being immediate, and with our library being heavily automated, we needed to be careful to time the message for when the item was actually available for pickup," Morris said.

Since items can be borrowed from one of four specific libraries, messages needed to contain details of which library, and which multiple items, could be requested at one time.

'We wanted to send only one short message so getting the wording right and removing duplicate messages was crucial," he said. Morris said the introduction of the SMS service has proven "rather successful".

"Library customers love the service and our library items are getting greater turn over," he said.

He said costs have also been cut because fewer letters need to be mailed.

Morris is confident the council will continue to look for additional areas where the technology can be used.

Transport is another sector where uptake has been strong. Courier company Business Parcel Express (BPX) uses SMS to inform drivers of jobs in real time.

BPX general manager Peter King said the company uses Message-Media SMS gateway to interface its booking system with the drivers' phones.

"Rather than just dispatch the job into the wild, we wanted to know the driver was active and on duty," King said. "We had a choice of investing in expensive data terminals for vehicles or to use driver's existing phones."

King said SMS works well for the company; because the coverage is good, a driver can't say the message wasn't received.

In addition to bookings, if BPX needs to communicate with drivers "for whatever reason" a broadcast SMS is a "quick and easy way" to contact the entire fleet.

In addition to the new library system, Adelaide City Council has successfully integrated SMS into its IT infrastructure monitoring applications since 2003.

The council's IT and technology infrastructure team leader, David Carroll, said SMS has proven to be "very effective" in enabling rapid response to infrastructure failures and faults, and therefore has reduced system downtime and service outages.

"Using the newer Windows-based mobile phones, systems engineers can respond to issues received via SMS within about one minute as they are able to use their phone to connect to the faulty system and immediately commence problem diagnosis and repair," Carroll said. "Previously this would have resulted in waiting for a user to report a problem and various escalation processes to be followed resulting in diagnosis starting some hours after the initial fault."

In 2003 the council integrated its e-mail systems with Telstra's OnlineSMS service to provide a "quick and easy" form of communication for office-based staff to pass messages to workers who are located mainly in the field, working from a mobile phone.

Along with the growing enterprise acceptance of SMS has come a host of service providers offering SMS integration solutions.

Raef Akehurst, managing director of Beep Interactive, creator of SMS service smsGeezer, said compelling business applications for SMS stem from some of the unique characteristics, including cost, static mobile numbers, and the message being almost instantly received and read, as opposed to possible delays with an e-mail or fax.

"Senders have to pay to send messages, so there is much less spam than with e-mail," Akehurst said. "This in turns leads to much higher readership of messages sent via SMS than e-mail."

Akehurst also believes SMS can reduce the cost of an organization's mobile service expenditure, particularly for internal communication.

"Some 30 to 40 percent of the average business phone bill is on landline to mobile phones," he said. "Of all calls to mobile phones, an estimated 50 percent go through to voicemail. That means there is a cost to make the call, a cost to pick up the voicemail, and then a cost to call back, as most of the time the message is simply asking for a call back.

"With SMS a brief message can be delivered instantly, and is read at the first available opportunity, thereby substantially reducing costs." Beep Interactive's smsGeezer allows SMS messaging to be integrated into a desktop - including Excel spreadsheets - or Web application. "The surge in the use of SMS for business applications has been a little later than I would have anticipated given the massive surge in SMS for personal use," Akehurst said. "Over the last 12 months, however, it seems to be growing at a rapid rate."

Akehurst said SMS-enabled applications can be developed with "intermediate" programming skills, but users need to be wary of the many poor quality service providers and the coverage of telcos.

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