Verizon Spam Fee Threatens Remind’s Free Texting Service, Sparking Educator Protest on Twitter

Staff Writer

UPDATED

After several days of vocal pushback from educators on Twitter, Verizon announced on Wednesday afternoon that it planned to allow Remind to continue providing basic text services for free to K-12 educational groups.

“We are dedicated to ensuring that our network is available and accessible to users who rely on us for important information like school closings, classroom activities and more,” Richard J. Young, a director of corporate communications at Verizon, wrote in a statement.

The move comes after Remind announced on Monday that it would have to discontinue its free text messaging service for educators, parents, and students due to a so-called “spam fee” imposed by Verizon to prevent robotexting on app-to-text messages.

“We’ve put an offer on the table that will ensure that service will continue, and it is up to Remind to agree to it,” said Young.

Remind, which reports 30 million users in the United States, is one of several messaging apps designed to provide easier communication between teachers, administrators, parents, and students. The company offers two separate plans: a free plan that teachers can use for their classrooms, and a school and district plan that organizations pay for.

The fee Verizon had planned to levy is designed to help protect against spammers. Starting this year, the carrier will be imposing this fee on services that send texts through app-based platforms to underwrite the cost of providing protections against robotexting services that use these same text-to-app messages. This includes Twilio, an app-based communication that Remind uses to send out its texts to educators and parents.

Remind had said that the price increase per text will make the free SMS service impossible to sustain for Verizon customers. For users on the free plan, Remind has borne the cost of SMS messaging since the company started in 2011, said CEO Brian Grey, in an interview. But if the fee were to be imposed, instead of paying several hundred thousand dollars a year for this service, Remind would have to pay several million, said Grey.

“It’s reassuring to hear that Verizon doesn’t want to drive profits on the backs of students, families, and educators,” a Remind spokesperson said, in a statement Wednesday evening.

For now, though, the companies are still at a stalemate. “Verizon has not signed any agreement with Remind to ensure that fees will be waived for all users of our free service,” the statement from Remind continues. “When we’re assured that a long-term deal is in place to guarantee that all the educators, parents and students currently using our free service can use SMS on the Verizon network without fees, we will be thrilled to continue our service without disruption.”

Starting Jan. 28, Verizon customers on Remind’s free plan will no longer have the option of receiving text notifications. The company estimates that 7 million users will be affected.

Educators and families can continue using the service through the mobile app or email, Grey said, but these options may not be feasible for families who don’t have smartphones or a reliable internet connection. For many, said Grey, “the SMS and text version of Remind has become the lifeline for them to stay connected to their school communities.”

Earlier this week, teachers and other educators spoke out against the proposed change on Twitter, tagging Verizon in their posts using the hashtag #ReverseTheFee.

“Ridiculous that is charging a ‘spam’ fee for their free messaging service. I am an educator & use this essential tool for communication. By receiving messages as text messages rather than the app means quicker response time to my students! ,” Stephanie Henkel, a science teacher in Genoa, Ill., wrote on Twitter.

Carriers Have More Freedom to Curb Messages

For school messaging companies like Remind, which rely on phone carriers to deliver their service, pricing policies can have a big impact on business models.

“When [carriers] make decisions and changes that are so dramatic, that increase the price by over 1,000 percent or 11 times, it becomes a shock to the system for us–and one that financially, we can’t even get our heads around,” said Grey. “It’s an important variable, and it’s one that we don’t always have a lot of control over.”

And recent decisions by the Federal Communications Commission mean that carriers will have more leeway to deter or block text messages going forward. In November of last year, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, confirmed that phone service providers had the right to block robotexts and put in place other anti-spam measures.

About a month after that, the commission voted to classify text messaging as a Title I information service, in a move that Pai said would allow carriers to continue taking action against spammers.

But critics have argued that the decision would allow phone service providers to block any texts at will. Jessica Rosenworcel, the only Democratic commissioner, wrote that the decision would give carriers the right to censor messages.

As of now, Grey is unsure whether the end of free SMS services for Verizon customers will lead to a dip in total Remind users.

But he says he’s concerned that other phone service providers may start to charge similar fees for app-to-text services. “We’re not sure what would keep the other carriers from following suit,” he said.

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