T-Mobile looks to separate devices from numbers with commercial launch of Digits

Neville Ray
Neville Ray, T-Mobile's chief technology officer.

T-Mobile said next week it will commercially launch Digits, a service that enables users to move phone numbers between devices and use multiple numbers on a single device.

And the carrier clearly thinks it is bringing a powerful weapon to the market.

Digits was rolled out to beta users late last year as an alternative to the one-number, one-device model that has long been an underpinning of the telecom industry for decades. Users can extend their number to tablets, wearables and computers, enabling them to call or text between a variety of gadgets with a single digit.  

Like the zero-rated data offering Binge On, Digits is being positioned primarily as a differentiated offering rather than a revenue generator. T-Mobile said every customer’s phone number will be upgraded to Digits for free May 31; users with autopay can get an additional Digits line for $10 a month.

New customers signing on to T-Mobile One Plus, the unlimited plan that launched in January, will get an extra Digits line at no additional charge for a limited time.

The operator is touting the new offering in a big way, trotting out C-level executives to extol the benefits of Digits.

“This is really exciting for us,” said Mike Sievert, T-Mobile’s chief operating officer, in an interview with FierceWireless. “We think the implications for how people use their devices are really significant.”

Digits is integrated in the native dialer of newer, high-end Samsung phones and is also available through apps for other Android devices and iPhones. But T-Mobile also had to make significant changes to the network to support the service, CTO Neville Ray said. So while other U.S. carriers may roll out similar services in the coming months, T-Mobile’s head start may be noteworthy.

“We’ve been at this for well over two years to build this capability,” Ray said. “So there’s some very core innovation that we’ve put in our core network to support Digits…. Outside the core network, we’ve done a ton of work with the handset folks.”

T-Mobile offered a litany of potential use cases for Digits: Families looking to kill their fixed-line services could use their home phone numbers on mobile phones, for instance, and customers who are constantly on their laptops can use the offering to text and make calls directly from PCs instead of picking up their phones.

But the biggest potential market for Digits may be business users. Many business people carry two phones—one for work and the other for personal use—and the new service could allow them to use a single device for both purposes, using separate numbers. And small businesses could use a single number to rout all incoming calls to multiple salespeople, minimizing the chance of a potential sales call going to voicemail.

And that could be a key to unlocking an enterprise market that remains largely untapped for T-Mobile.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have a shared business sales number that gets routed simultaneously so that no call from a client gets missed?” Sievert asked rhetorically. “We see this as a real differentiator for us.”