Your Phone Number Is Doomed

Your Phone Number Is Doomed

WebRTC will change the way we communicate.

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.

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