How can I prevent cost incurred by my contacts when they text in to my Frontline workspace?

SMS is the only truly ubiquitous mobile messaging system, and is successful worldwide because it generally has a low cost per message. However, even the low costs associated with sending an SMS can be an obstacle for many users. To lower this barrier, Frontline has in the past worked together with users who transferred the cost of each received SMS from their end users to their own account.

There is not a single correct approach to transferring the cost. Instead, several different techniques have been used with Frontline, and have seen success depending on the country/countries the project operates in, and the availability of the mobile network operators (MNOs) for negotiating a special billing setup. This article explores the following options:

  1. Using an aggregator that has already negotiated reverse-billing in the relevant territories
  2. Negotiating reverse-billing directly with a network, and using that connection in an Android phone running FrontlineSync
  3. Using cash, mobile money or airtime transfer services to offset the cost of messages


Using reverse-billing with an Aggregator or network-specific API

One way of sending and receiving SMS in Frontline is through web-based SMS aggregators. SMS Aggregators are companies which partner directly with networks in various countries, and register virtual phone numbers for SMS that you can then connect to your Frontline workspace. Examples of aggregators are Nexmo and Twilio, and with Frontline you can connect virtually any aggregator to your workspace. 

Depending on the country you are in, there may be an aggregator that supports 'reverse billing', which means that as users text in to you, you incur the cost of the SMS through your aggregator account, and the user who sent the text is not charged by the network. The advantage of this setup is that it is automatic and instant (as opposed to the reimbursement approach discussed below), but it is very location- and network-specific; there is no single aggregator that supports 2-way messaging in every country, and reverse billing arrangements do not typically work across borders.

In some cases, the mobile network operator will offer a direct API that lets you send and receive messages using either HTTP or SMPP, the two common approaches to connecting to SMS systems over the internet. Frontline can connect to such networks' APIs using a custom connection, and if a reverse-billing setup is negotiated with the network, there will be no charges to end users who text in through this connection.

See our Connections help section for further details on setting up our directly supported aggregators. If yours isn't listed, or you are setting up access direct to a mobile network's API, contact us to find out whether we can set up a custom connection for your use case.


Using a reverse-billing-enabled SIM card in an Android phone running FrontlineSync

A second option is to negotiate a reverse-billing setup directly with a mobile network, and use our FrontlineSync Android app to send and receive messages on a phone that has this special billing arrangement. This requires the mobile network to set up a special SIM card with this billing arrangement, which is not always the preferred route for most networks - they typically instead provide an API as described above. It also does not scale very well if you are going beyond one country, because reverse billing will typically not apply to international SMS, and you would therefore require similar setups in every country you operate in.


Reimbursing your users for the cost of SMS sent

The last option, which has worked well in some past Frontline projects, is to let users text in and incur the normal fee but compensate them in kind. You can calculate the cost of messages that a user sends in over the course of a period (e.g. each month), and reimburse them in cash for this cost.

In countries where mobile money is prevalent, this can be done remotely without the user having to visit an office or provide banking details. Many networks in countries that use "pay as you go" billing instead of fixed-cap contracts also have credit-sharing features, which let you send over part of your pay-as-you-go account balance to another number.

Taking this a step further, wherever there are APIs for mobile money services (e.g. MPesa in Kenya), we can build a Custom Activity to automate the reimbursement over mobile money without manual counting, or manual triggering of the payment.

Contact us to find out more about mobile payment automation in Custom Activities.

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