Already most communications that take place over telecoms networks do not involve telephone numbers. Email and other internet based communications increasingly dominate business and consumer communications. Fixed network voice calls are moving to mobile and Skype like services. By some estimates the last fixed line phone will be retired in 2025. Even if the decline of fixed phones and with it fixed telephone numbers is not that fast, clearly the writing is on the wall.
Meantime in the mobile world, telephone numbers are growing fast. However, sending messages to mobile numbers and calling mobile numbers has started to go out of fashion. Messaging services such as WhatsApp are replacing SMS and increasingly people use Skype on their handsets. Of course Skype also sells telephone numbers, but most Skype users don’t bother to buy one.
The trend away from making standard mobile voice calls is accelerating with the adoption of LTE. For example, in contrast to older versions of the iPhone, the new iPhone with Apple’s iOS 6 upgraded FaceTime from a WiFi only feature to a cellular feature. AT&T Wireless was the first to allow customers to use FaceTime over LTE if they signed up to their new shared data tariff plan. The key aspect about the new tariff plan is that in terms of pricing it is data centric, with voice playing minor role. Most mobile operators still base their tariff plans on a minute bundle with data added to that, but this will change rapidly as LTE becomes commonplace.
If telephone numbers become obsolete this poses challenges not just for operators but also regulators. The world of telephony is organised around telephone numbers and there is an element of sovereignty in country codes and national numbering plans. If telephone numbers become obsolete, governments have surrendered this sovereignty to the internet. This is a frightening prospect to some governments.
Many aspects of telecoms regulation are number focussed. If people no longer need telephone numbers, national regulatory agencies effectively lose control over telecommunications within their borders as well as internationally. The spat at the December 2012 ITU meeting in Dubai over regulating the internet is only the opening skirmish in what is likely to turn into a major battle.
The way in which the obsolescence of telephone numbers will impact will differ between markets. Some emerging market countries still have not fully re-balanced fixed network tariffs, e.g. Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait to name a few I am familiar with. Subsidising the cost of the line rental from long distance calls will no longer be possible. For example, in the case of Tunisia the fixed line rental retail price would have to increase by a factor of four to cover costs. Such price increases are politically unacceptable and hence it seems tempting to look for money elsewhere, e.g. from Google, Skype (Microsoft), and perhaps even from the most valuable company on the planet, Apple.
The transition will not be problem- free for developed markets. Already regulators fret over the issue of calls to emergency services. On its website Skype clearly states “Skype is not a replacement for your telephone and can’t be used for emergency calling”.
On the plus side, if telephone numbers become irrelevant, operators and regulators will not have to worry anymore about fixed and mobile number portability.
Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting