Zen and the Art of Mobile VoIP

August 7th, 2012
Joe McGarvey, Director of Analysts Relations at GENBAND

At some point in the early 2000s, motorcycles reached a new level of popularity in the US, with motor vehicle departments recording a better than 50% increase in registrations. It’s a pretty safe bet that around that same time legions of automobile executives suffered heart palpitations related to the imagined prospect of future sales lost to this sleek two-wheel alternative capable of traveling tremendous distances on a few gallons of gas.

From a technical standpoint, motorcycles are as serviceable as cars, getting motorists from point A to point B using the same routes and without any degradation in speed. And on the plus side of the comparison ledger, motorcycles are less expensive to buy, maintain and fuel than the average automobile.

Despite the sudden jump in popularity of a qualified rival, the automobile managed to hang on to its dominance as the preferred means of transportation. While millions of motorcycles are sold in the US each year, the majority are purchased by automobile owners. For reasons that are fairly obvious, such as safety, comfort and cargo room, the motorcycle has never been nor will it ever be a mainstream substitute for the car in the US. (Motorcycles do outnumber cars in some countries in the developing world.)

Like the auto industry a decade ago, the venerable telecommunications industry suddenly faces a surging rival – alternative voice offerings from competitors with the audacity to use the same wires and spectrum that operators have built out and maintained for years. These so-called Over the Top (OTT) offerings provide the same basic function as operator-provided voice services – connecting caller A with caller B. In addition, these IP-based services arguably provide efficiency and functionality improvements over traditional voice services and, undoubtedly, deliver a better value, as most services are free within a closed system and severely discounted when traversing the PSTN.

While VoIP alternatives have been available on broadband fixed pipes for years, forcing most operators to offer IP-based alternatives to their own TDM-based services, mobile data pipes have only recently broadened to the point where they can accommodate real-time communications. The move to 4G by mobile operators, which further broadens those pipes, also creates a chasm between operators’ data and traditional cellular voice networks that opens up a huge opportunity for OTTs in the mobile space.

OTT mobile VoIP providers have been quick to seize on this opening. As of the end of 2011, roughly 100 million mobile VoIP users were exchanging minutes, according to a recent report issued by Infonetics Research, all of them leveraging freely distributed applications from OTT players. While the lack of operator-owned VoIP subscribers is primarily a result of the fact that the first wave of VoLTE services will not go commercial until later this year, Infonetics projects that it will take years for VoLTE to make a dent in the overall subscriber universe.

From all appearances, OTT-delivered mobile VoIP has already achieved significant traction and represents a clear threat to operator-provided voice, whether TDM or IP. This early lead, accompanied by the fact that OTT mobile VoIP is offered at a price (essentially free) that operators can’t compete with, has signaled to many that operators would be wise to concede their voice business to the upstarts. Voice, after all, is basically just another app running over an IP network. It’s better left to developers who brought the world other valuable apps such as Ninja Fruit and Angry Birds.

It’s far too early, though, for operators to call it a day.

For starters, what is not exposed in those impressive mobile VoIP adoption figures is how many of those millions of subscribers are relying solely on an OTT app for communications. A reasonable guess would be a small fraction, a figure that is likely to be close to the percentage of US motorcyclists who don’t own another vehicle with more than two wheels. The reality is that most mobile subscribers will likely rely on a combination of OTT- and operator-based services, a likely scenario enforced by multiple partnerships already forged between operators and alternative mobile VoIP.

While some broadband subscribers may only be paying for voice services from traditional suppliers out of habit, the more likely list of retention reasons includes security and reliability concerns, universal access and interoperability, as well as the comfort that comes from doing business with a familiar and trusted entity. GENBAND is working hard to assist operators in both exploiting their advantages over OTT players and figuring out attractive ways to collaborate with a competitive force that is not going away.

The dynamics impacting operators’ opportunities to retain at least a significant chunk of existing voice revenue in an all-IP world are myriad and include multiple categories, such as technical, business model related and timing, which can be further divided into multiple sub segments. This blog is not the appropriate forum for exposing and considering all of the issues in this extremely important clash of the old guard and the new.

It is also unproductive to further torture the analogy between motorcycles and OTT mobile VoIP applications. Admittedly, OTT mobile VoIP suppliers have a considerably better opportunity to displace traditional phone services than motorcycles have ever had at displacing cars. Operators should harbor no illusions that their legacy as real-time communications providers, as well as a vital source of revenue, are in jeopardy. While they are in for a fight, a sustainable outcome is not as elusive as many voices in the industry would have them believe.