Why Nigeria’s Do Not Disturb policy is not quite the easy solution it claims to be

Marketers have long understood the ubiquitous nature of SMS messaging and have taken advantage of it to contact subscribers with advertising, promotions and information.

This is particularly true in developing economies, where the high levels of mobile phone ownership and the low costs compared to other forms of advertising has meant that the amount of messages have grown at an alarming rate.

The increase of these messages, known as application to person (A2P) SMS, have become somewhat of an annoyance for subscribers, and in recent months, the African market in particular has noted higher levels of frustration, which is potentially damaging to loyalty towards network providers.

In a bid to mitigate this issue, Nigeria’s Communications Commission (NCC) introduced a new initiative – Do Not Disturb (DND) – which allows subscribers to ‘opt out’ of receiving A2P messages.

On the surface, DND provides a simple solution; by texting “STOP” to 2442, Nigerian subscribers will no longer receive any third-party A2P SMS messages. While this may be hugely welcome for subscribers frustrated by the volume of unsolicited messages they receive, there are hidden impacts to both them and their mobile network operator (MNO), which makes the move far more complex to implement in practice.

DND and Subscribers

DND is designed to block all third-party A2P SMS messages from being sent to customers that decide to unsubscribe. However, by taking this approach, all promotional SMS will be blocked, including those that subscribers actually want to receive. This could range from a service they are receiving, an interest they have, or a special offer they may wish to take up.

An SMS reminding a customer of a doctor’s appointment or job interview, for instance, are notifications subscribers would welcome and more than likely one they’ve asked to receive. However, having a DND solution in place that doesn’t take these sorts of messages into account would prevent users from receiving vital information and has the potential to be even more frustrating as receiving spam.

That said, DND does have the function to opt-back into certain categories of A2P SMS; texting "SMS 1" will opt-into receiving SMS relating to Banking, Insurance or Financial products to 2442, and "SMS 2" for receiving SMS relating to real estate to 2442, for example. However, the NCC has reduced a complex series of topics and subjects into just nine broad categories, which could confuse users and make it unclear where a service may fit, or be relevant.

A subscriber wishing to receive genuine SMS communication from their own bank, for instance, would be required to opt-into receiving messages from all banking, insurance and financial third parties. This means they still face receiving a whole host of irrelevant messages just to receive the messages they want to see, so it’s clear that the real needs of subscribers must be balanced, which could prove to be a real headache for MNOs.

MNOs and spam

MNOs are currently facing a difficult task in making sure they not only comply with the NCC’s DND requirements, but that they do it in a way that properly protects their subscribers. While it doesn’t seem like a difficult concept to implement on paper, the classification of traffic entering the network and filtering between them is often much more complex than operators anticipate.  

If an MNO wants to introduce DND features in an effective way, it must have a strong understanding of the nature of the traffic terminating on its network. Introducing a robust filtering system or firewall is the first step, and operating it with a skilled team of analysts can give them full control over A2P messaging traffic.

Should a DND function be implemented with all of these factors taken into account, it will be successful in delivering an accurate classification of traffic and provide subscribers with only the messages they want to receive. 

Operators without this level of understanding put themselves at risk of spam or fraudulent messages taking advantage of their network. Low levels of security measures increase the risk of SMS reaching subscribers via grey routes. While not strictly illegal, grey route traffic takes advantage of international re-routing to circumvent delivery costs, which significantly impairs MNO revenue.

The impact of this grey route traffic must not be underestimated. It could even be argued that if grey routes were closed, DND features may not even be required in the first place. This is because a single grey route message typically costs a fraction of a cent to send; using official channels, an A2P message can cost between four and seven cent. By not having grey routes available to them, marketers would be forced to be more selective with A2P messaging. Customer satisfaction typically improves greatly with protection against grey routes in place.

Implementing DND

Fortunately for MNOs, a range of services are available to implement effective filters and identify the nature of the traffic passing through their network on a daily basis. Monitoring of all SMS traffic across a network enables MNOs to filter messages into accurate categories for delivery or blocking – this kind of control is a valuable tool designed for those looking to comply with regulations like DND.

Once captured, grey route traffic can be monetised. Opening up a new revenue source is of course appealing to the operator but, by increasing the cost of sending SMS messages in bulk, A2P aggregators are incentivised to create higher quality messages which subscribers would value more. Meanwhile, the level of increased protection would have the added benefit of stopping SMS fraud, helping to improve the overall customer experience.

Conclusion

The issue of unsolicited SMS messages is not exclusive to Nigeria, with operators across Africa taking an interest in DND-like policies to help improve subscriber experience. Operators and regulators need to consider the impact of blocking all A2P messages – especially when many relate to services customers wish to receive.  They must then either implement a system able to undertake complex filtering, or adapt their existing network equipment to match. In addition to this, loopholes and grey route traffic must be combated, as the impact of this traffic reaching opted-out subscribers could be hugely damaging.

Ultimately, DND is not simply a case of shutting off a stream of communication. The technical expertise needed to implement this kind of policy successfully must not be underestimated. Only through utilising a complex filtering system will operators be able to put this kind of policy into practise, and bring the benefits of DND to their subscribers.

Kevin Panzavecchia is the Chief Technical Officer at HAUD.

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