Voice isn't dead yet

The good news: the telecoms voice business isn’t dead. The bad news: many of today’s voice players will be unless they can stop thinking like telcos and adapt to new market realities.

That was the takeaway from a panel session on the voice market at Capacity Asia in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday, in which telco executives said that there are still ways to make money in the voice business, but they aren’t the old ways of making money, and voice players had better discover new ways and fast.
Chandan Ghosh, chief of Aircel Business Solutions, said that while the voice sector is not dead – “I’ve been hearing that voice is dying for the last 15 years” – it is seriously challenged, with voice margins already so low, particularly in hypercompetitive markets like India, that being in the voice business was almost close to “slavery”.
Ghosh also acknowledged the impact of OTT players like Skype on the voice business, but said telcos had no one to blame but themselves for Skype’s success at their expense.
“We brought it on ourselves. We let the content providers take over our space,” he said. “Voice is just an app, and data is just a means to getting what customers really want. We should be thinking like that. It shouldn’t matter if we are in the voice business or the data business. You’re a carrier! Why carry just voice?”
Ghosh later joked, “I don't mean to be depressing,” saying that he did see good opportunities to make money in voice, such as roaming, and that he was determined to not let the voice business die.
But he emphasized that voice service providers are “so strangled by the telecoms way of thinking,” citing India’s voice tariffs, which are so low now that service providers might as well offer voice for free and make money from it in other ways, such as advertising.
“But no one will consider this because the shareholders still think like telecoms,” he said. “They think inside the box when the only thing inside the box is a dead body.”
Siddhartha Kohli, Asia MD for BICS, made a similar point, relating an anecdote about meeting a Facebook executive in Singapore. “I asked him that since Facebook has 800 million users, why not charge them a dollar a month and make $9.6 billion a year? He replied: ‘That’s a telco’s mindset’.”
However, Kohli said he was more optimistic about the voice business precisely because the rise of OTT players creates new opportunities for telcos that learn how to partner with them.
“Telcos are not good innovators. But we are good at engineering and operating networks. We don’t make apps, but we can partner with those who do and layer our superior network and engineering experience, and come up with a better customer experience,” he said. “The worst experience can be free, and the best experience can charge an arm and a leg.”
Kohli added that while telcos probably couldn’t execute a Facebook-like model where the experience is subsidized, “we could create a local flavor of Facebook or Skype in ways that those companies can’t because we know the local markets better.”
Kohli also noted that the success of OTT services depends on the level of broadband penetration, which creates a distinction between developed and developing markets. “In Nepal, or India, OTT is not such a threat yet, so traditional voice is still thriving.”
Patrick Meijer, Asia-Pacific VP for iBasis, agreed that partnering with OTT players made sense. “OTT players need us to offer truly global services, so as long as there is still that need for interworking with each other, there’s still money to be made.”
Yasuyuki Koide, COO of carrier relations for KDDI, pointed to his company’s agreement with Skype to make it the default option for voice on KDDI’s mobile phones.
“Skype has had a big impact on our volumes, but we realized we can’t stop it, so we had to look at how to generate new business with it,” he said.