Telcos go mute over Facebook voice play

As featured on TM Forum's the Insider blog

It might just be time for CSPs worldwide to get serious, really serious about the threat to the traditional revenues from the likes of Skype, Facebook, Google and another thousand or so messaging and VoIP players nibbling away at their core revenues. Nothing, it appears, is sacred in the rush for OTT layers to offer alternatives to every telco service ever invented.

Skype has already become the largest carrier of international voice traffic on the globe and, apart from a handful of operators terminating their calls to the traditional phone networks, most will have felt the effect on their revenue stream.

The industry’s headlong rush into offering high-speed data service via fixed-line, cable, 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi is admirable but potentially suicidal. It now means that anybody that can replicate traditional voice and messaging services can threaten the service provider’s money flow.

The latest, and perhaps the greatest threat is coming from none less than Facebook. It has just updated its Messenger for iPhone application to allow people in the USA and Canada to make free voice calls to their social network friends, and there are billions of them out there. In fact, if you start to consider Facebook as potentially one communications network, it is, by far, the biggest in the world. How long before it offers this service internationally and extends it beyond ‘friends only?’

This calling functionality makes Messenger into more than just an SMS or iMessage challenger. Now Facebook is potentially a bona fide threat to carriers. But The Verge seems to think the bigger play here is for teen attention. “With free calling, Facebook has built itself a large enough straw to drink out of the fountain of youth. Teens carry around iPod Touches and smartphones with limited or shared voice and data plans. Even if texting is their first love, they probably still want to make actual phone calls on occasion.”

I am not so sure that voice will catch on with today’s youth that seem, at best, to be mutes with very fast fingers. However, there are many ‘older’ users of Facebook that will see the advantage of being able to call family and friends because typing isn’t their thing.

Interestingly for the conspiracy theorists out there, the VoIP features are only available on the iPhone app at this stage. Is this an extension of the love affair between Apple and Facebook we have seen growing for some time now, at the expense of the evil ogre, Google and its Android empire? Probably nothing quite as sinister as that, because many Facebook users have Android phones, too.

However, it seems that everyone is now playing in the space. Microsoft with Skype, Google with Google Talk, Facebook with Messenger, Apple with FaceTime and all made possible because of the fantastic connectivity provided by CSPs.

Despite countless reports, analysis, theories and suggestions on how CSPs should diversify and monetize things they are not familiar with, the core element they provide - connectivity – continues to being undervalued. The awful ‘dumb pipe’ analogy raises its ugly head every time this is discussed but extracting the best value out of that pipe has to be every CSP’s objective.

If charging more for data plans, limiting data usage and abuse, wholesaling services to the OTT players that are eating away at their revenues, charging them for their share of the traffic consumed (a new two-sided business model perhaps) or just becoming a commodity provider is the way to go, then its probably time to start thinking seriously about it.

One wonders if the big OTT players don’t see the entire communications industry as a fragmented, ultra-competitive, highly regulated, big spending, mishmash of ‘old school’ businesses they have very little in common with. Will we see them start to invest their billions in developing their own infrastructure (as Google has done in a small way) or will they wait for existing infrastructure players to falter under the triple burden of revenues under pressure, increased technology spending and less than enthusiastic investors and stakeholders?
 

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