opinion


Voice can still give operators something to shout about

humble fixed-line voice service has been subject to a cacophony of death knells since the beginning of the decade. It’s easy to see why. Consumers across Europe are abandoning their landlines in favour of mobile or over-the-top Internet telephony, while ARPUs from those that keep them are stagnant or falling. Yet recent developments suggest that reports of the demise of fixed voice may have been greatly exaggerated.

For a start, the power of people actually speaking to one other has never been in doubt. When people need to get a message to someone urgently, they still pick up the phone, and there are certain conversations that cannot be had virtually. Consumers are constantly being bombarded with new, sometimes dubious, ways to communicate with one other. Yet when the hype dies down and such applications are themselves replaced by the Next Big Thing, one suspects that we will still be talking to each other on the phone.

And some fixed operators are still making significant revenues from voice, notably incumbents that can provide managed voice services for their rivals. In June this year, BT announced that it was to provide BSkyB – one of the UK’s most committed unbundlers – with a voice service for its 1.1 million Sky Talk customers. BT has similar deals in place with cable player Virgin Media and alternative operator Orange UK.

Unbundlers can offer VoIP over their networks, but it requires significant capex to do so. And no alternative operator in the UK has an LLU footprint that covers every exchange in the country. Such wholesale agreements give them a risk- and relatively effort-free way to offer voice services to all their customers.

But voice’s future lies above and beyond bolstering incumbent wholesale revenues, at least according to certain luminaries in the telecoms industry. JP Rangaswami, BT’s managing director of service design, is a big proponent of the power of voice. He claims that it is this, rather than location, presence or messaging, that sits at the heart of Web21C SDK, BT’s open application program-interface (API) initiative.

He also believes that operators have only scratched the surface with what they can do with voice. “Everyone has been harping on about other forms of communication as if it’s [voice] the poor cousin left behind,” he says. “Actually, it’s the richest if you take it into the 21st century.”

This desire to move voice into the present day lies behind BT’s decision to invest US$105 million in Ribbit, “Silicon Valley’s first phone company”, as it styles itself.

The acquisition raised some eyebrows, but Ribbit and BT share similar aims. At Ribbit’s core is an API that enables developers to combine VoIP features with traditional telephony and include voice in web-based applications.

Predictably, this has been labelled “Voice 2.0” in some quarters. To date, most attempts at integrating voice and the web – such as click-to-call applications in social networks – have been inauspicious. But applications that have been produced using Ribbit hint at a far more interesting future. Ribbit enables developers to digitise phone calls and messages. They could then be stored, archived, shared and edited, just like video, images, text or any other digital data.

In real terms, this promises to make voice much more useful to consumers and businesses. In an attempt to showcase what it can do for large corporations, Ribbit has produced several applications for Salesforce.com, a vendor of customer-relationship-management (CRM) software. Salesforce users can digitise their voice calls automatically, convert their calls into text files and attach voice files to contacts or documents. The benefits of such services are clear. Partaking in a conference call and subsequently forgetting what was said or spending hours typing up notes would be a thing of the past.

And it’s not just for business users either. Another Ribbit application, Amphibian, adds a variety of web-like features to mobile calls. Users can manage their mobile voicemail online as they would their e-mail, make phone calls from a webpage and find out more contextual information about whom they are speaking to.

Such innovative applications are not traditional operator territory. But as Ribbit has an open API, any developer can create applications that use voice in this way. Ribbit claims its developer community numbers 2,500.

How to extract value and revenue from such services is, of course, the next big question. But the likes of BT are backing them because they share many characteristics with the most successful telecoms services: they are simple to use, solve a genuine need and make people’s lives easier. Those services may not reincarnate voice as the cash cow it once was. But such a fundamental reinvention of something as powerful as voice is reason enough for operators to be optimistic.


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