ESPN Balks at Sprint’s New Text Fee

Sprint (s s) has quietly raised its messaging rates for companies that distribute texts, leading ESPN (s dis) and other content providers to stop delivering free messages to the carrier’s subscribers.

Beginning April 1, Sprint began charging an additional toll of one-half of one cent to companies that distribute texts on behalf of organizations for every message sent through its network. While the charge may seem minimal, it could dramatically change the economics for news outlets, retailers, banks and countless others who send texts as a free customer service rather than a way to generate revenue directly.

The carrier made no public announcement about the new charge, but discussed ESPN’s move last week in this company blog post. Others who have reportedly stopped sending text alerts to Sprint users include The Weather Channel and MSNBC (s cmcsa) (s ge). When I asked Sprint to comment, spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh Kiefer said the toll is necessary to keep pace with the increasing traffic of business-to-consumer texts:

“When the business model was originally created that enabled businesses to send texts to consumers without paying a fee, there was no charge because carriers were trying to encourage businesses to adopt texting as a way to reach consumers,” Kiefer said via email. “Today, with the dramatically rising use of texting by businesses, Sprint needs to recoup the cost for providing this capability.”

Of course, that neglects the fact that Sprint subscribers are already paying to both send and receive text messages. Sprint offers three plans that include unlimited messaging on its network as well as three a la carte messaging packages that can be added to other plans. Customers who choose not to buy bundled plans are charged 20 cents per message. And it’s worth noting that the cost of delivering text messages over the network is far lower than sending pictures or other kinds of content.

Sprint’s move isn’t unprecedented, however. Verizon Wireless(s vz) in 2008 suddenly announced a ridiculous charge of three cents per message for business-to-consumer texts. The carrier aborted the plan after content providers were outraged. That kind of response hasn’t surfaced in the wake of Sprint’s more modest new charge, though, which means the fee is likely to stick — unless customers demand the carrier deliver those free score updates from ESPN.

Image courtesy Flickr user Aaron Escobar.