SMS text messaging has always been a ripoff—a way for cellular phone companies to charge excessive fees for transferring trivially small, Twitter-like bits of data. Yet in the era before Twitter and iPhones, text messaging took off in Europe, only later addicting North American cell phone users who came to value quick, asynchronous SMS conversations with other people. Not surprisingly, cellular providers came to see the 20¢ per mini-message charges as microtransaction gold mines, and some later found ways to charge even more for MMS multimedia messages—both of which iPhones could handle via e-mail for free.

iPhones were built for multimedia: Apple had years of expertise in seamlessly sharing text, photos, audio, and videos using iChat, and it seemed like a given that iChat would come to Apple’s pocket devices. Yet in what seemed like an uncomfortable concession to new cellular partners, Apple went along with recurring text and MMS messaging charges despite having grown iChat into the world’s best free instant messaging application. Thus an iPhone SMS application was introduced instead of iChat, and subsequently replaced by an updated app called Messages when MMS message support was added. Accustomed to squeals of delight and rounds of applause during launch events, Apple executives had to endure awkward silences and groans whenever they discussed these features.

That’s how the world’s most capable family of smartphones helped to further popularize one of the biggest scams in cellular service. And it’s quite telling that Apple, as soon as it was free of its exclusive contract with AT&T this year, revealed that it wasn’t going to be a text message enabler any more. Starting this fall, iOS 5 will introduce iMessage, a substantial if incomplete reworking of the company’s Messages application for iPhones. iMessage will now enable iOS 5 users to send text and multimedia messages to one another for free, instantly, regardless of whether they’re using iPhones, iPod touches, or iPads. The service will make a determination as to whether the recipient is using iOS 5 or not, using Apple’s free messaging service if so, and otherwise relying on traditional cellular SMS or MMS messaging. With iMessage, Apple will save iOS 5 users untold millions of dollars. Or, at least, that’s what it’s trying to do.

Never missing an opportunity to screw its customers, AT&T has come up with a way to guarantee that its ridiculous messaging service fees will grow despite iMessage. AT&T is now dropping the last of its three lower-priced text messaging plans—a $10 version with 1,000 messages per month, following the earlier killing of a $5 plan with 200 messages per month and a $15 version with 1,500 messages—so it can require new customers to pay $20 per month for unlimited text messaging, or instead pay 20¢ for each text message and 30¢ for each multimedia message. These fees are on top of the $15 or $25 monthly fees that iPhone users already pay for data, the latter of which would otherwise cover the cost of over 10 million SMS messages per month.

Under AT&T’s new fee structures, a user who sends or receives 1,000 text messages per month without an unlimited plan would pay $200—a number that goes up as high as $300 with MMS messages. This is highway robbery, a furtherance of an already objectionable scam, and one that now can now only be insured against for a $20 charge. Existing customers have less than a week to downgrade to the $10 plan before it becomes unavailable, and there is no guarantee that iOS 5 users will be able to turn off or block paid SMS/MMS messages to or from non-iOS 5 devices. A new customer will likely have only two choices: pay a $20 monthly surcharge, or deal with a la carte fees every time a traditional SMS or MMS message comes in.

In the pre-iPhone era, T-Mobile offered Sidekick users a combined “unlimited” plan with data and text messaging for only $20 per month. Today, those same dollars won’t even buy a 2GB limited data plan, though T-Mobile now offers unlimited texting as a comparatively modest $5 or $10 surcharge. Unfortunately, T-Mobile doesn’t sell iPhones, and it’s about to be purchased by AT&T—a company that has been making record profits by offering less service at higher prices, and is now cutting off less expensive options for its dependent users. We were previously all but unfazed by the prospect of AT&T absorbing T-Mobile, but anti-consumer moves like this are making us reconsider our willingness to see this price-conscious competitor disappear from the marketplace, particularly when the company gobbling it up so frequently works against the interests of its customers.

Readers, what do you think? Has AT&T gone too far with its elimination of lower-cost text messaging plans? Should consumers respond by petitioning to block AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile? Sound off in the comments section below.