Your Phone Number Is Doomed

Guest author JT Ripton is a business analyst and blogger. He cowrote this piece with Peter Scott.

Almost nobody asks for my phone number any longer, which is good because I’m not exactly sure what it is. There’s my cell number, my Google Voice number, my Skype number, and my local cell number when I travel in Asia every year. Most of the time I don’t have to sort through those options, because the person who wants to call me asks if I’m on WhatsApp. Or Viber. Or maybe even Line.

Everybody likes free, and almost everyone likes to mix calls with chat and share photos and files. That’s why nobody asks for my cell number anymore. They want to connect with me via a software client of choice that delivers all these things for free.

Reaching Over The Top

Normal people call these services “messaging apps,” and they take it for granted that they’ll work on almost any device that connects with the Internet. But they’re a problem for traditional telecom carriers such as AT&T and Verizon, which have a special label for these apps: “over the top.” 

It’s a silly phrase, since it just means an app that uses the Internet—but we’ll use it here, because carriers place an outsized importance on those three little words.

Services that go “over the top”—OTT for short—undercut the carriers’ business models. We don’t need cell minutes, international calling, or so-called “value-added” services. We just need fat data connections that support our messaging app of choice. This is not good for carriers.

Until recently, traditional telecom carriers had no meaningful response. Mobile operators such as T-Mobile have experimented with their own apps like Joyn. Of course, these get another acronym: RCS, or rich communication services. 

But a competing, carrier-led messaging app hardly fixes the fundamental problem. Nobody I know ever uses these carrier-marketed options. Why would they?

Salvation for carriers might be arriving soon, though, in the form of a technology called WebRTC. WebRTC has the potential to undercut over-the-top apps just like they did carriers’ messaging options—and in so doing, it could give telecom companies a pathway back to relevancy.

Why WebRTC Matters

WebRTC is an open-source standard originally championed by Google for embedding real-time communications directly into Web pages. It’s making its way into the HTML5 Web standard, though not all Web browsers support it—most notably Apple’s Safari. 

The RTC in WebRTC stands for “real-time communications.” It delivers the standard messaging set that includes voice, video, chat, and file sharing, but unlike existing services, it doesn’t lock you in to a single app. You open a browser or any WebRTC-enabled app, click a button, and there’s your voice or video call. This is far better than WhatsApp, Viber, and all the rest, because it is universal.

It also is good business, because developers can include WebRTC on any web page or app with only a few lines of JavaScript. This opens up new worlds for customer service.

For instance, last month I purchased a lighting kit online and a part of it was broken. I had to photograph the damage, find the company’s phone number, explain the problem—and then I discovered that I had put it together wrong and the kit wasn’t even broken. If the company had used WebRTC, I could have clicked a button on their site and immediately been connected visually with an agent who would have shown me my mistake quickly and easily.

Another early application for WebRTC is easy video conferencing. Even business meetings on Skype are a hassle, because you still need the Skype client and a little training. Group conferences require more work. With WebRTC, video meetings are as easy as distributing a link and having participants click on that link. It is no more difficult than browsing a web page.

The Telecom Empires Strike Back

At first glance, it’s not obvious why WebRTC helps carriers: If messaging apps were bad enough, won’t ubiquitous calling buttons make things worse for carriers’ old-fashioned voice and text services? While WebRTC definitely undercuts messaging apps, it leaves the door open for telecom strengths: direct network control and ties to older calling technology.

WebRTC is a peer-to-peer protocol for easy, vendor-neutral real-time communications, but it doesn’t offer quality-of-service guarantees or connect with existing phone systems out of the box. Telecoms that embrace WebRTC can help with these challenges and with other infrastructure support.

Specifically, telecoms can help in five ways: 

  • They can bring network service guarantees for a nominal fee.
  • They can connect WebRTC with apps like Joyn for programmable multimedia capabilities without forcing developers to tangle with technologies like voice over LTE.
  • They can offer network infrastructure support for firms that leverage WebRTC.
  • They can connect WebRTC calling sessions to existing phone networks.
  • They deliver features like signaling that are not addressed by the WebRTC standard.

WebRTC will succeed where carrier apps failed because it is universal and not a self-serving carrier creation. AT&T already has seen the light, and earlier this year it announced an API that lets developers plug their WebRTC creations into the AT&T calling network.

Making The Connection

There are challenges ahead for WebRTC, however. It isn’t a done deal that it will crush messaging apps and replace traditional calling in the next five years like some pundits predict. The two big challenges are reliability and, ironically, compatibility.

For WebRTC to supplant traditional calling, quality must be assured. Currently it is not; connections over WebRTC can (and do) suffer from the dropped calls and network jitter that affect other over-the-top solutions. This is a short-term problem as companies such as Agora.io already offer network optimization services for WebRTC that ensure reliability. Carriers will get in on the act, too.

The biggest issue is around compatibility. The dirty little secret is that WebRTC is not yet quite as universal as the standard allows. There has been a fight over whether to use the VP8 codec or H.264. While Google and Mozilla have embraced WebRTC in their Chrome and Firefox browsers, Microsoft’s new Edge browser and Apple’s Safari don’t yet support WebRTC. Until they do, WebRTC won’t actually be universal.

Recently, Microsoft has signaled support for WebRTC, and the Internet Engineering Task Force recently advanced a proposal to support both VP8 and H.264 in the protocol standard. Apple still doesn’t support WebRTC natively with its Safari browser, but the company may be forced to adopt it soon, as iOS developers are increasingly embracing WebRTC in their apps, and we know Apple does pay close attention to what developers are doing.

While messaging apps have been scaring carriers for the past few years, the tide might be shifting soon. WebRTC could become the new universal way to make calls. And if it does, telecoms should take advantage of this—and give messaging apps a taste of their own medicine.

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