On November 7th, tens of thousands of people across the US woke up to strange text messages from friends and loved ones, occasionally from people who were no longer in their lives, like an ex-boyfriend or a best friend who had recently died. The messages had actually been sent months earlier, on Valentine’s Day, but had been frozen in place by a glitched server and were only shot out when the system was finally fixed nine months later, in the middle of the night.
It was a puzzling moment, but even more puzzling was the company behind it: a provider of backend services for wireless carriers called Syniverse. Most people had never heard of the company and had no idea it was handling some of their most private and personal messages. In fact, nearly every wireless carrier in the US relies on Syniverse in one way or another — and it’s so entrenched that, even after a major screwup like this one, its partners have no option but to carry on with their partnerships.
For about two decades now, wireless carriers in the US have used third parties like Syniverse to route text messages between networks. If an AT&T customer wants to send a message to another AT&T customer, it’s simple: AT&T can just move the message itself. But if an AT&T customer wants to send a message to a Sprint customer, a third-party company needs to take on the work of translating AT&T’s message into Sprint’s protocol, and physically routing it from one network to the other. And thanks to some canny buyouts and years of ruthless competition, the vast majority of that work is now done by Syniverse.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint currently use Syniverse to route text messages to people on other networks, according to data available to Tyntec, a smaller messaging services company that spoke with The Verge. T-Mobile confirmed that it uses Syniverse, AT&T declined to comment, and Sprint did not respond to a request for comment. Verizon confirmed that it uses a competitor, SAP.
With those three carriers as customers, Syniverse is responsible for delivering 600 billion messages every month.
It’s a wonder then that the number of stuck messages wasn’t far higher. Syniverse initially said that around 168,000 texts were caught on its server — roughly half a second’s worth of messaging. If each one of those messages impacted a different sender and receiver, more than a quarter million people would have been affected by this mistake.
Experts who spoke with The Verge said that Syniverse’s explanation of what happened — that a server went down and was only reconnected nine months later — is plausible, but that the scenario still involves Syniverse royally screwing up. Any server being reconnected should have been “cleaned” first, ensuring that no lingering messages were waiting inside it, according to two people with technical knowledge of how SMS messaging systems work.
SMS messages are also supposed to expire after 15 days, according to one of the people, who asked to remain anonymous because they still work in the industry. That means that not only was the server not cleaned, but Syniverse then erred in firing off the messages, since their months-old date should have told the server to destroy them.
“There should be multiple verifications all along that should have avoided that,” the person said.
Syniverse declined to comment for this piece and said it stood by an earlier statement, in which the company’s marketing chief apologized “to anyone who was impacted by this occurrence” and said the company would review its processes to “ensure this does not happen again.” In the statement, Syniverse also revised its estimates on the number of stuck messages: its initial figure was, in fact, too low. It has yet to provide an updated estimate.
But for years, industry figures have been sounding the alarm about just such a scenario. The very same Valentine’s Day that the SMS server froze up, a mobile services executive named Thorsten Trapp had flown into Washington to warn lawmakers about Syniverse’s dominance in messaging and other carrier services. He came armed with a series of slide decks laying out Syniverse’s dominance in SMS and MMS messaging, as well as in providing critical services for 2G, 3G, and roaming.
“This thing is monopolized. You have literally only one provider who makes sense in the messaging world,” says Trapp, the chief technology officer of Tyntec. “No innovation, no nothing.” His company is currently suing Syniverse for alleged anticompetitive behavior.
Carriers used to have more options for managing SMS. In the mid-2000s, a number of companies — known as inter-carrier vendors, or ICVs — popped up to route messages between their networks. If one had messed up or raised rates, there would have been many alternatives for carriers to choose from. Now, there are really just two.
“What was great about the industry prior to that, if [one company] got out of line, the other two or three would fight that … The other two would smack ‘em back into line,” says Eddie DeCurtis, who’s worked in the ICV industry since its inception, including two years as president of Tyntec.
Syniverse made a series of key acquisitions starting in 2009 to bolster its position as a provider of backend carrier services. First, it spent $175 million to buy a division of VeriSign that provided ICV services, combining two of the market’s bigger players. In 2012, it purchased Mach for €550 million, merging with its main competitor in providing roaming-related financial services to mobile carriers (the deal received scrutiny from the European Commission around concerns it would create a “virtual monopoly” over these services and required a pair of Mach’s businesses to be divested). Finally, in 2014, Syniverse spent $290 million to buy Aicent, a major provider of roaming data services.
Syniverse is “a company that doesn’t really grow organically,” says Paul Ruppert, who led Syniverse’s messaging division in the early 2010s and worked on the company’s acquisition strategy. “It was very much driven by acquisitions.”
As its presence grew, Syniverse began using more and more aggressive tactics to push smaller competitors out of the ICV market, according to Trapp and DeCurtis.
Syniverse’s greatest asset became its size: because Syniverse controls the gateway to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customers, it’s able to effectively block would-be competitors by denying them messaging connections to three of the United States’ four largest mobile carriers. Trapp says Tyntec made a deal to provide SMS services to 21 rural carriers, but they’ve been stuck in limbo for two years waiting for a connection that’s yet to pan out.
This conflict has led to a pair of lawsuits. Tyntec is currently suing Syniverse for allegedly refusing to honor a contract to exchange messages for free, rather than at a per-message fee that would require Tyntec to “double or triple” its price “and then fail,” says Trapp. An ICV now owned by Tyntec, Iris Wireless, also previously sued Syniverse over essentially identical allegations, ending in a settlement in which Syniverse agreed to keep freely exchanging traffic. (DeCurtis previously worked at Iris as well, before the lawsuit.)
From Syniverse’s perspective, its actions were never meant to be anticompetitive — Iris Wireless was so tiny that it wasn’t even a competitor in the first place, argues Ruppert, who led Syniverse’s messaging division at the time of the conflict and made the decision to cut off Iris. “That couldn’t be more fucking aspirational from their perpsective,” Ruppert says. “That’s just bullshit spinning. That’s all I can say.”
One longtime industry source The Verge spoke with agreed that Tyntec was too small to ever stand a chance against Syniverse, but still felt that Syniverse’s actions were outside the stated ethos of the ICV industry, which was to grow the SMS network as big as possible.
Tyntec appears to be on the verge of losing its lawsuit. A federal magistrate judge has recommended ruling in Syniverse’s favor, finding that Tyntec failed to establish various violations of antitrust law. (A Syniverse spokesperson said the company does not comment on “matters involving litigation.”)
Still, Syniverse’s size has allowed it to ingrain itself further into the mobile ecosystem. Tyntec says Syniverse now offers many of its backend services as a discounted bundle, something that no one else can compete with, making the company hard to turn away from.
That’s what Trapp went to Washington to warn lawmakers about — the consolidation of carrier services inside a company built on acquisitions and allegedly ruthless tactics that push other companies out. Trapp warned that allowing this to continue would lead to not just a lack of innovation, but also a technical threat: a “lack of redundancy and resilience.” But the meetings didn’t go particularly well. Due to the ongoing litigation, the dense technical subject matter, and Tyntec’s foreign origin (it’s based in Germany), the company found little immediate support for its complaints about Syniverse’s SMS dominance, a person familiar with the briefings said.
Trapp might be too late, anyway. Just as Syniverse’s dominance of SMS is becoming a matter of public concern, SMS is on its way out.
The wireless industry is in transition right now — albeit a messy, prolonged one — moving to a new text messaging standard known as RCS. RCS should eventually replace SMS, and it’ll require different infrastructure. While Syniverse may well end up providing some of that infrastructure, so far its name hasn’t been coming up. The carriers have also devised a joint initiative to maintain some degree of control over the infrastructure they’ll eventually build out, and there has been some real movement to actually deploy RCS messaging over just the past week.
Syniverse’s screwup was by all accounts a big one. A critical piece of communications infrastructure briefly ceased to function, and no one was informed of the problem. Worse, when the issue was resolved, it led to some troubling outcomes. The mistake was big — but the problem could have been far worse. Americans sent around 1 trillion text messages in 2017, according to the CTIA.
“When you look at the amount of traffic on a daily basis, frankly, this is peanuts,” said the person with technical knowledge of the industry. “This is just amazing given the amount of traffic going through.”