Michael Vakulenko

Voice: Breaking free from the telecom business models

Voice: Breaking free from the telecom business models

It’s very clear that software companies took the lead in innovation around voice communications. The telecom industry is lost in the woods arguing about standards, technology and regulation, while Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, WeChat and numerous startups are focused on new use cases and business model innovation.

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Telco is lost in the woods (again)

Telephony is considered a declining business, despite globally increasing dependence on communications. [tweetable]People are not communicating less – they just attribute less and less value to telephony[/tweetable]. Today, many everyday communication needs are better served by alternatives that don’t fall within the narrow definition of telephony.

We wrote about freeing voice from telephony almost 3 years ago in our Telco Innovation Toolbox. Today I’m excited to see the future of voice unfolding in full force in front of our eyes.

Facebook wants to take over the dialer

Did you notice how Facebook has become increasingly bold in everything related to voice and video services? Messenger’s 600 Million users can call each other using voice and video without leaving the app. Facebook-owned Whatsapp also allows its 800 Million users to speak with each other within the app. The huge scale of Facebook voice services surpasses any telco. Compare that with China Mobile, the number one telecom operator in the word, which had 808 Million subscribers as of January 2015.

Facebook understands that [tweetable]voice is central to human communication and will always remain so[/tweetable]. Therefore the company wants to make sure that people will speak with each other inside the walled gardens of the company’s social networks. Facebook doesn’t look at voice as a revenue source. Voice is a universal need and therefore it is an effective way to attract and engage users. David Marcus, who left the position of PayPal President to run Facebook Messenger, says:

“VOIP is just one way that the company hopes to use the messaging app as a platform for much bigger things, including online payments.”

Google Fi wants to take over the core network

Google trails behind still trying to break through with its Hangout platform. The recently announced Google Fi service is a shot in the direction of reinventing voice and video communications.

So far, most media and blogosphere attention is focused on Google Fi pricing and network switching technology. I believe that these are the least interesting aspects of the Google’s initiative. It’s pretty clear that Google has bigger plans in mind. Google Fi unbundles voice service from the telecom network turning Project Fi into a platform for innovation in communication services. Nick Fox, Google VP of Communications Products writes on the company blog:

“As mobile devices continually improve how you connect to people and information, it’s important that wireless connectivity and communication keep pace and be fast everywhere, easy to use, and accessible to everyone. That’s why today we’re introducing Project Fi, a program to explore this opportunity by introducing new ideas through a fast and easy wireless experience.”

Today Google uses pricing and network switching technology to attract an initial user base and seed Project Fi for the next stage. The next stage will be opening the platform to Google’s huge base of mobile and backend developers, together with an ever-growing number of Android handset makers. This is when Google Fi will become truly interesting allowing Google to “pull an Android” on the core business of telecom operators and create a credible competition to Facebook’s communication services.

Much like Facebook, Google is going into telecom not for wireless plan revenues, but to compete asymmetrically, transferring profits from the telecom industry to its core online ad business.

Twilio wants to take over the telecom API

Twilio has proven that developers have a genuine interest in telecommunication services. The company offers an API platform for programmatic access to voice telephony, SMS and now instant messaging. The company reports that 700,000 developers have already registered to use its platform.

Contrary to the many failed telco attempts at driving revenue with APIs, Twilio proves that telecom developers and APIs can be a good business too. The company is worth over $1 Billion. Twilio chief executive Jeff Lawson says the company hit an annual run rate of $100 million in revenue in 2014, and is adding $1 million in annualized revenue every seven days.

The company actively nurtures its main asset – the ecosystem of developers. Twilio teamed up with three well-known venture capital investors, Bessemer Venture Partners, DFJ and Redpoint Ventures to create a $50 Million investment fund to invest in companies using the Twilio API.

Twilio flourishes where telco failed: creating an attractive business by building a developer ecosystem on top of commodity telecom services. Developers can reinvent point-to-point telephony into thousands of use cases that telcos were unable to realise.

Microsoft wants to take over business services

Microsoft is about to join the fray as well. The first move was replacing Lync with Skype, a still hugely popular VoIP service, as a core of its suite of business communication services. For Microsoft, voice is a way to boost Office – its well-entrenched suite of business tools.

Exciting times ahead

Telephony may be in terminal decline, as most analysts agree. Voice and video will however remain a central part of human communication. These are very exciting times in telecoms for those who understand that [tweetable]”digital” is not a channel, but a new set of business models[/tweetable]. Software companies that use these new business models will use voice communication asymmetrically transferring profits from legacy telephony to their non-telecom business.

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