Everyone who has a cell phone plan can agree: text messaging is unnecessarily and exorbitantly expensive, especially when you consider the costs to the cell phone companies to actually *send* text messages.
Text messages, or SMS messages, are small bits of data sent over the voice protocol (as opposed to over the data protocol). SMS messages can cost anywhere from $0.50 to $1.00 each without a plan, and unlimited text messaging costs $20-30 per month.
For just a few bits of data, this amounts to over $1,000 per *megabyte*. This is akin to price-gouging, and many consumers have begun to take issue with the pricing. And, rightly so.
Fortunately, services are arising to provide free text messaging to consumers by sending SMS messages over *data*, not voice protocols. While this can sometimes be cumbersome and inconvenient, it can also be a godsend for those on a tight budget.
The most popular such free texting service was created by none other than Google. Google Voice (US only) allows users to send and receive SMSs to a free Google Voice phone number. While this is not nearly as convenient as receiving text messages directly on a cell phone, even that issue can be worked around with a smartphone.
How it Works
To get a number with which to start texting your friends, colleagues, and peers for free, go to http://google.com/voice. From there, you will need to choose an area code. Please note that each customer can only get one Google Voice number.
Once you've received your Google Voice number, let your friends know about it. This will be your "texting only" phone number, as you cannot conveniently make calls from it without setting up complex call forwarding workarounds.
When all your friends know your number, it's safe to start texting them from that number. You can do so from the web app available at Google.com/voice. The layout is easy to figure out -- just select "Text" and type your contact's name or number. Then, type and send you're message and click "send". (On a humorous note, if you try sending an SMS message that is longer than 520 characters, it asks you, "Really?" as a friendly reminder to keep SMS messages brief).
iPhone and Android Apps
Yes, it can be inconvenient to send SMSs *only* from a computer. In fact, it can even defeat the purpose of *using* SMSs, as we often need to send SMSs when on the go. To counterbalance this downside, Google offers iPhone and Android apps. These apps can "ping" you whenever you receive messages, and you can also send SMSs directly from your phone *for free*.
As people gradually use free services like Google Voice more and more often, pressure will be put on the carriers. Will they be able to charge $0.50 per text message, when services like Google Voice and even Apple's newly-introduced iMessages are competing *for free*?
It is hard to compete with free. If the carriers *try*, then they will need to show a clear demonstrable benefit to using paid SMS over free SMS services.