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The founder of Locust has devised a cunning plan to save the popular text messaging community, following Orange's decision to withdraw support for the service at the end of March.

In 2001 Orange announced it was dropping its Talk 60 Text 1500 tariff, which let organisations send large numbers of text messages for only £60 a month.

This was bad news for Locust because it meant that members would have to pay for every text they received. The change put the future of the six-year old mobile community in jeopardy.

However, following pressure from members and Locust's founder Jon Anderson, Orange agreed to continue supporting the service with the help of the mobile phone company's R&D unit, OrangeImagineering.

In a deal cut in December 2001, OrangeImagineering agreed to support Locust while working on joint research in online mobile communities.

Locust members thought the deal had secured its long-term future. So they were shocked by news last week that OrangeImagineering was to sever the relationship from the end of March.

According to Orange, OrangeImagineering stepped in always on the understanding that this was to be a short-term arrangement. The firm strongly denies accusations that it had supported Locust only for as long as it took to set up rival services.

Alternative futures

Be that as it may, Locust has been left looking for alternative ways to deliver text messages.

With the lack of support for 'WAP push' message delivery on UK networks, Locust founder Jon Anderson began looking to a system based around GPRS.

A recent poll of the Locust community showing that 50 per cent of users have a GPRS handset suggests this approach is viable.

Earlier this week Anderson announced a deal with Fastext that has the potential of allowing the restructure the Locust community around GPRS.

Although the Fastxt platform currently runs only on Symbian- enabled mobile phones, such as the Nokia 7650, the idea has potential. It is possible to send and receive messages, even if you don't have a Symbian phone, as Anderson explains in a message to users.

"Fastxt is a least-cost router for mobile messaging. When you send a text message via Fastxt, rather than go via your talk plan, the message is relayed via GPRS and delivered by Fastxt to the other party. If the receiver is also a Fastxt user, the message is delivered over GPRS, with a significant cost saving," Anderson writes.

"At the moment you need a Symbian enabled phone, but the software is also being developed to run on many of the other new phones. If you don't have a Symbian phone, you can still use Locust via the WAP / GPRS gateway and via the PC control panel and the AOL or MSN instant messenger links. This is just a way to get all the features of SMS, only without using SMS."

The Fastxt service costs £5.99 per month, in a package which includes 100 SMS messages per month.

Locust used to charge a flat rate of £3 per month.

"While I transition to a GPRS business model, the service is currently free and the text messaging component will work up until the 31st March," Anderson tells us.

"I'm encouraging as many people as possible to try it out," he adds.

So far, the feedback is largely positive though some subscribers say that the service will be of no further use to them if Locust ceases to be available via SMS.

Anderson argues Locust's future is not through SMS.

"Text messaging is now too expensive. The rates for bulk and customer SMS have risen consistently over the last few years. This ultimately makes Locust unviable through SMS," he told us. ®

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