Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Responding to VoIP

In my mailbox this week are several emails from Ovum touting their new report "Mobile Operator Response to VOIP: the six steps". We don't have an Ovum account, so I don't know what the six steps are, but there are several steps operators can take, using their existing infrastructure and a Smart Wi-Fi solution based on 3GPP GAN, to address mobile VoIP.

1. Turn Mobile Voice into Mobile VoIP. Mobile operators have a huge technical, market and competitive advantage with their existing circuit voice service. The 3GPP GAN specification enables operators to turn Mobile Voice into Mobile VoIP. The existing voice service is transformed into a new, cutting edge VoIP service... and the best part is that it doesn't require a massive new infrastructure upgrade. With Smart Wi-Fi, mobile voice becomes a Mobile VoIP icon/application which can be distributed far beyond the confines of the mobile phone.

2. Compete where the competition is. Most mobile VoIP occurs over Wi-Fi. Subscribers have access to Wi-Fi in the home and at the office. With Smart Wi-Fi, the mobile operator can create a low cost calling service that's available only when the mobile phone is attached to Wi-Fi. The advantage? Mobile operators don't have to drop prices when the user is in their car or traveling, only in the same places where there is actual mVoIP competition, when there is Wi-Fi available.

3. Bundle your mobile VoIP service with USB dongles. USB dongles have been a tremendous success for mobile operators. The mobile operator now has a platform on the subscriber's 'other' device, their laptop. And yet operators haven't chosen to embed a mobile VoIP client into the USB dongle. With Smart Wi-Fi, a mobile VoIP client using the existing mobile voice network can easily be embedded with the USB dongle. This is certainly better than giving subscribers high-speed mobile data service, and then leaving a gaping hole for voice that requires a quick download from Skype.

4. Embed mobile VoIP onto the iPad. While launched here in the US, the iPad 3G is about to take off in Europe. Guess what's missing? Any type of voice service, operator-based or otherwise. With Smart Wi-Fi, operators could easily have their own mVoIP app pre-loaded onto the iPad. Sure, users may still choose to download Skype, but at least they have the option to use the operator's service.

5. Extend mobile VoIP to non-cellular devices. Once the stodgie old 'mobile voice' service has been transformed into a shiny new Mobile VoIP service with Smart Wi-Fi, it can be used on non-mobile devices. It can be downloaded to laptops, desktops, iPads without 3G, the list goes on and on.

6. Address the ILD disparity. This is the most controversial decision to make. Kineto Wireless conducted a survey several months ago and found that the primary use for a third party mobile VoIP application is to place (outbound) international long-distance (IDL) calls. I have a colleague who only turns on Wi-Fi on his iPhone to place Skype calls to relatives around the world. As long as there is a tremendous arbitrage opportunity, subscribers will jump through the hoops to use alternative mVoIP services. This is immensely profitable for operators, so there is no hurry to collapse the market.

But I think everyone sees the same evolution which transpired in the fixed network coming to the mobile network. Today calls to fixed lines in most developed markets are about $0.02/minute. As mobile termination rates continue to decline, mobile ILD will continue to decline as well.

It's clear to me that there are two major trends occuring in the mobile voice market. One is that the revenue per minute is declining, and will continue to decline for some time.

The second trend, which I think is coming faster than people realize, is that the total number of minutes served will begin to decline. There is a new generation of subscribers who talk less. They view the mobile phone as a text, email, IM, Facebook tool. Making a voice call is distinctly secondary. We can see it in the network trends (Ericsson: data overtake voice traffic), in Smartphone UIs (Blur, Sense, ...), in the service plans (Vodafone: £15/month gets 300 min voice, unlimited texts).

The implications are profound for mobile operators. Less revenue per minutes, less minutes overall, sounds a lot like the fixed line voice world.

To conclude, mobile operators have tremendous influence in the market, they have spent billions to create brand awareness, and now with Smart Wi-Fi, they can leverage their most valuable service, voice, beyond a mobile phone.

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