AT&T Forcing New Customers Onto Unlimited SMS Plan Or Pay-Per-Message

Even as companies like Facebook and Twitter change the way people think about sending short messages, the SMS text message remains very popular and extremely profitable for wireless carriers. New pricing plans from AT&T (NYSE: T) will force customers to either upgrade to an unlimited plan or turn into text-message misers.

Engadget received a tip from a reader–later confirmed by AT&T–that the company plans to do away with a $10-a-month text-message plan that allotted customers 1,000 messages. Starting on Monday, new AT&T customers will have two choices for their texting needs: a $20-a-month unlimited plan, or a pay-as-you-go plan at the current rate of 20 cents a message, which stops making sense after you’ve sent 100 messages. Current customers will be able to keep the 1,000-message plan even if they get a new phone from AT&T, the company told Engadget.

Text-messaging is the perennial leader in Comscore’s monthly surveys on mobile usage, with about two-thirds of all mobile phone users in the U.S. reporting they had sent a text message within the last month. It’s also a leader among wireless carrier CFOs because of how inexpensive text messages are to maintain as compared to data networks.

But as data networks become faster and more reliable, many companies are betting that people will start using other applications for messaging. Facebook recently launched a new mobile app that allows its users to message each other, Twitter’s direct messages aren’t that different from SMS in terms of writing style, and Apple built a new messaging application into iOS 5 that will let iPhone users talk to each other.

That means text messages may not be a wireless gravy train forever, and so it’s not surprising that AT&T would try to force new customers onto the more expensive plan. The company told Engadget that “vast majority of our messaging customers prefer unlimited plans” in any event.