With AT&T’s news earlier this month that it wants to get our of the old-school telephone business and transition to an all-IP network, we’re at a watershed moment in telecommunications. But for the millions out there who can’t tell circuit-switched voice from voice over the Internet (VoIP) one of the bigger issues is what does the transition to VoIP mean for telephone numbers.
Theoretically, in an all-IP world you don’t need phone numbers. You need the equivalent of a URL where people can find you. But anyone who spends much time using web-based communications services such as Skype, FaceTime, Google Talk (or Hangouts) it’s clear that one URL for one person might be a pipe dream. And honestly, there are probably plenty of people who wouldn’t want to be found at a single place — those people probably enjoy having one number for work and another for home. It provides a nice demarcation for their lives.
Plus, the idea of having one method for contacting you via voice, video, text or IM also means that you need smarter services or parameters on the back end to ensure that when the phone rings at 2AM in an emergency you hear the call, a wrong number wouldn’t disturb you. These are not new issues. Ever since the rise of VoIP and the big tech firms began proposing this concept of unified communications, we’ve been thinking about these issues. But the looming end of the circuit-switched network brings the fate of the telephone number back up again.
Phone numbers get upcycled
According to executives at Bandwidth.com, one of whom has two decades in the telecommunications sector, the concept of phone number isn’t going anywhere — instead it will get upcycled and used in new ways. For example Tom Steffans of iNetwork, the wholesale division of Bandwidth.com expects ten-digit numbers to last for at least a decade for many reasons, including the main one, which is that the public switched telephone network isn’t going to disappear overnight. Plus, we still don’t have something to replace the phone number with.
“You can communicate with your friends on whatever platform is popular today, but then in a few years you switch over to the next Facebook?” Steffans asked.
But in our conversation he did bring up some interesting ideas about how the telephone number is getting gussied up for a digital age. Bandwidth.com is the sixth largest telco in the U.S. based on the number of telephone numbers it has, and provides the IP platforms for clients such as Pinger, Google Voice and Twilio. Some of its products are number-based — namely abstracting the complexities of getting, provisioning and managing telephone numbers. The iNetwork division offers customers an API and takes care of the legal and mechanical logistics of finding and managing telephone numbers.
And then services take those numbers and use them not for voice calls, but in the case of Pinger for an over-the-top-texting service. OR Google which uses a phone number to deliver a voice service of its own. Or for companies like Marchex and Flexicalls so they could pop a phone number on a web site and use it for lead generation. But in those use cases, the old way of handling a phone number, which basically meant the carrier kept it out of circulation for 30 days to “clean” it, doesn’t always make sense. Cleaning a number basically means making sure that no one is calling it looking for its former owner. For a texting service that might not be as important, since phone calls wouldn’t go through as texts. For a lead generation number it might be, since the company wouldn’t want false leads.
Don’t stick your head in the sand
“It’s no longer Amy calling Jim, it’s two 13-year-olds texting each other or Jim calling Skype. It’s advertisers putting numbers on the web where its lifespan may only be two days” says Steffans. “The dynamic, and who uses and consumes a number has dramatically changed, but none of the old rules have changed.”
And as those rules change it’s an open question if the traditional telephone providers are ready to offer services like Twilio or Bandwidth.com does. In an all-IP world providing access is not the services, it’s the platform on which you build a service. Many people inside the traditional voice companies still see the service they provide as voice, or data or video. But in an all-IP world the baseline is IP and a provider can sell that at bare bones pricing or build up value by creating services on top of it. Bandwidth.com competes with some of its clients in a fashion, and that’s fine with it. Will AT&T, Sprint or Verizon be able to keep up? Do they want to?