It was only a matter of time before a major North American operator abandoned its territorial notions about mobile voice and adopted a true ‘softphone’ service. That operator appears to be Rogers Communications. It’s severing the seemingly unbreakable bond between the mobile phone number and the mobile phone, making it an outlier in an industry that has always jealously guarded its voice revenues.
Last week, it took out of beta its One Number service, which allows customers to extend the voice and SMS capabilities or their phones to any PC under a single unified phone number. On Monday, it revealed that none other than CounterPath, the developer of the innovative over-the-top VoIP application Bria, was powering the service.
Rogers, however, isn’t simply re-branding the Bria Android and iPhone clients. It’s doing something far more sophisticated. It’s using the underlying Bria technology to power a web-based portal that can make and receive phone calls and send text messages to any Canadian number as well as video chat with other Rogers One Number users – all at no charge and with no penalty to a customer’s voice minute or SMS caps. It may sound a lot like Google Voice, but the magic is in hidden in the network. Rogers is integrating CounterPath’s technology into its next-generation service delivery architecture – which in telco jargon is known as IP Multimedia Subsystem, or IMS – creating a bridge between its legacy circuit-switched voice networks and CounterPath’s session initiation protocol (SIP)-based VoIP and video services platform.
The result isn’t a semi-isolated web service like Google Voice, but one that makes PC calling an extension of Rogers’ ordinary mobile voice services. Customers can transfer calls mid-conversation between their phones and PCs and vice versa. IMS negotiates the tricky hand-off between circuit-switched and SIP-based calls in the heart of the network. And once a call migrates to the PC, Rogers no longer counts it against a customer’s monthly minute allotment. Rogers posted a video that provides a basic outline and demo of One Number’s capabilities:
Rogers isn’t the first operator to pal up with an over-the-top voice provider. Verizon Wireless shocked the industry by announcing a partnership with Skype in 2010. But that deal was more about giving preferential treatment to – and presumably creating a revenue-sharing agreement with — a particular VoIP provider, not directly integrating Verizon’s phone numbers into the Skype service. Many operators also have experimented with call forwarding and simultaneous ring services bridging their wireless and wireline voice services.
But Rogers is going much further. It’s divorcing the mobile phone number from the mobile phone, making it just another IP service that can be carried across networks, applications and platforms. It will be interesting to see how far Rogers expands One Number. Tablets and connected TVs seem like the logical next step, but it’s not hard to imagine Rogers tapping into other Internet companies’ APIs to stick its ‘mobile’ service into anything with a user interface. Free calling from your Facebook account may be just around the corner.