This report seeks to study the social phenomenon of Short Messaging Service (SMS) and youths in Singapore.

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This report seeks to study the social phenomenon of Short Messaging Service (SMS) and youths in Singapore. The motivation behind this project is due to the increasing number of SMS users especially among the youngsters. This reports not only gives the chronology of how SMS evolved, but also the basic background to SMS in Singapore, explaining the environment, organisations, people and technology involved. The analysis of the pros, cons and social impact of SMS on youths will also be explored. On top of that, a survey will be done to substantiate some of the more important findings. In addition, a case study on SMS and youths in Australia will be discussed, with certain comparing and contrasting to the situation in Singapore.


The use of mobile phones has gained worldwide popularity with the youth. From the report of mobileYouth 2003, there are currently 239 million youngsters aged 5-24 in 2003 in 20 important markets and they own 104 million mobile phones (a penetration rate of 44%). [8] Closely integrated with the use of mobile phone is the use of Short Messaging Service (SMS). As the name suggests, SMS is, simply put, a service whereby a user types a message in his mobile phone and sends it to other users. This SMS service is instantaneous, private and user-friendly. A single SMS has an inherent limitation to a maximum of 160 characters per SMS and contain no images or graphics. Thus, “devoid of colour, graphics, audio, video, and confined to 160 characters per message, SMS hardly seemed the most radical of new media technologies.” [16] However, it has taken the world by storm, particularly among the youths. In this project, we have narrowed the definition of youths to that of the Generation-Y (below 21 years of age), as this is the age group that has generated a lot of media attention, and hence interests us more.

We shall first look at the chronology of events that lead to SMS, and the background of SMS in Singapore, before explaining this phenomenon of the popularity of SMS among youths. Specific points will be backed up with a survey conducted. The survey is in the form of a questionnaire (Appendix 2) and was completed by 20 youths, age 13 to 21. The data collected in summarised in a table (Appendix 3) for easy reference.


In 1982, the Europeans recognised that a single, transnational wireless phone system was a good way to ensure efficient roaming of subscribers among countries. This led them to develop the mobile communications technology, known as the Global System for Mobile communication (GSM), from the ground up “as a system for analog voice with modulated digital capabilities built in.” [3] SMS was then created as part of this GSM standard as “a way of sending call set-up information to mobiles from an SMS center.” [16]

Later, during the 90s, SMS further developed, such that the first SMS was “sent from a computer to a mobile phone via the UK’s Vodafone network.” [16] From then, SMS took full advantage of the technology to send short bursts of text-based messages across the GSM networks. The technology of the 2 way SMS, as we now use, was concluded in 1994. [16] Interestingly, however, SMS was never developed to be used as a form of mass communication. [16]

In the late 90s, full network connections were established between rival UK networks. [16] The technology then spread globally. Today, the more developed form and modern type of SMS is Multimedia Service (MMS). It has additional features than SMS, and incorporates graphics, sounds, and animation. At this point, however, it is difficult to gauge if SMS or MMS will dominate in the future, as there are benefits and costs to both. Ultimately the user will decide which suits his lifestyle more. Also, in the near future, due to better technology, perhaps more interesting applications of SMS will evolve.  

After stating the chronology of SMS, we shall explore the background of SMS in Singapore.


In Singapore, the number of mobile phones users owning a mobile phone has increased tremendously recently. Compared to 2 in 10 people in 1998, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore reports that now the number has increased to 8 in 10 people. [19] This amount corresponds to the increase in talktime, and SMS sent. In fact, users spend “202,940,000 hours on the mobile phone and 82 billion text messages a year”. [19] Generally, the people involved in this telecommunications market are the consumers (users), and the companies (organisations) that offer such services. Together, they determine the demand and supply of the SMS market. However, the focus of this paper is on SMS and youth, and thus, we will focus on youths instead of all users.

As mentioned, companies offer the SMS service that we have in Singapore. The organisations involved here in the telecommunications market are Singtel, M1 and Starhub. These organisations are quick to capitalise on the increasing trend among youths using SMS so commonly. For instance, Singtel recently started a “*Ideas” scheme whereby users can subscribe and obtain latest information through SMS. Some of the most sought after information are English Premier League results and Games Arcade. [9] Starhub, too, recently collaborated with cable television in launching of MTV Code, a youth-oriented service that “provides SMS updates on the music scene, discounts and privileges and access to the latest MTV events, parties, concerts and movies.” [1]

From the above examples, we can see that dominant players in the telecommunications market are indeed capitalising on the increasing trend of SMS to make profits. Perhaps summarising this phenomenon very well is a comment made by MTV Networks Asia's vice-president of network development and licensing and merchandising, Mr Christopher James: “‘With mobile technology at the very core of the Singaporean youth lifestyle...the new plan brings us one step closer to being on the pulse of the local youth culture.'” [1]

After identifying the organisaions involved, we shall now touch on the technology involved in SMS.  Firstly, mobile phone usage is largely based on the Subscriber Identity Modules (SIM) card, without which, the mobile phone is akin to a pile of metal. This SIM card is mainly used for subscriber-profile purpose and as such identifies who the sender and recipient of the SMS are. When a person sends a SMS, it will first go to its desired Short Message Service Center (SMSC). [2] In Singapore, the SMSC has its own telephone number, and has already been set for all users. Hence users usually use SMS without realising the existence of this service center. In contrast, in countries like Hong Kong and China, users have to set the service center by themselves by calling their own network’s SMSC.

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Upon reaching the SMSC, a SMS Request will be sent to the Home Location Register (HLR) to find the roaming customer. [2] Once the HLR receives this request, it will respond to the SMSC with the subscriber's status: inactive or active. If the response is "inactive", meaning that the subscriber is out of reach of the network system or in poor reception areas, the SMSC will hold onto the message for a period of time. [2] This means that SMS is based on a ‘store and forward’ technology, which allows the intended recipient to receive the message instantaneously it ...

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