WhatsApp vs SMS: how much a message costs

Mobile operators in South Africa recently complained about over-the-top players like WhatsApp using their data networks to undercut their revenue streams.

The CEO of MTN South Africa called on industry regulator Icasa to look into services like WhatsApp, arguing that it has unfairly benefited from the billions of rand of investment the operator makes each year.

To establish why WhatsApp has eaten away at the SMS revenues of mobile operators, we conducted price comparisons of the messaging services.

In our first comparison we found that if SMS was priced like data, a message would cost a fraction of a cent.

This isn’t an accurate reflection of the actual costs incurred when sending messages, though.

To compare how much WhatsApp costs versus the price of SMS, we calculated the amount of data consumed to send WhatsApp messages.

The cost of the data on various packages available from South Africa’s mobile operators was then compared to the price of SMS. This is summarised in the table below.

Service used to send message Per-MB price 1 message 351 messages
SMS @ 50c per message R0.50 R175.50
SMS bundle @ 21c per message R0.21 R73.71
Vodacom prepaid ad-hoc R2.00 R0.06 R10.40
Other prepaid ad-hoc R1.00 R0.03 R5.20
Vodacom 30MB bundle R0.40 R0.01 R2.08
Telkom SIM-Sonke ad-hoc R0.29 R0.01 R1.51
Vodacom 20GB bundle R0.05 R0.0014 R0.26
MTN 5GB+5GB Dataaa! R0.04 R0.0011 R0.21
Telkom Internet Starter Pack R0.04 R0.0011 R0.21
Cell C Giga 100 R0.02 R0.0006 R0.10

It should be noted that data-based instant messaging services like WhatsApp consume data even when idle.

To try and work this cost into the calculation, we looked at the average data usage on 351 messages of varying lengths (screenshot below).

Some messages were longer than a standard 160 character SMS, while others were shorter. On the whole, WhatsApp’s text messaging feature was used in much the same way as SMS might have been.

To give an idea of what the worst case might be, we zeroed WhatsApp’s network usage statistics and sent a single message. This consumed 13.3 kilobytes, as shown in the “1 message” column above.

Worth noting is that when a second 100-character message was sent, fewer than 200 bytes were consumed.

Another difference between WhatsApp and SMS not explicitly indicated in the table is that WhatsApp uses data to receive messages, whereas with SMS only the sender pays.

However, with SMS you pay for all 160 characters even if you don’t use them all, while with WhatsApp you only pay for the data you use.

WhatsApp network usage stats
WhatsApp network usage stats

If SMS was priced like data, a message would cost 0.03c

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WhatsApp vs SMS: how much a message costs