During the recent net neutrality debate and even in the past, telcos have claimed that OTT players like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype hurt their revenues. There's worry that the money telcos used to make on phone calls and text messages is depleting because of free instant messaging services. Although it's a no brainer than texting on WhatsApp or Google Hangouts is cheaper than doing so via SMS/ MMS, calling people over the Internet can be cheaper, even if you're on 3G.
So then why are we just not calling everybody using these popular instant messaging apps instead of dialling to them on expensive voice calls? There are a few hurdles which are stopping us from doing that today:
1. VoIP apps are second-class citizens on mobile operating systems
Have you ever been on a Facebook or Skype call, only to be interrupted by a traditional phone call? In my experience on both iOS and Android, VoIP apps are treated like second-class citizens, possibly because mobile operating systems today treat phone calls above everything else.
It is extremely irritating when you're on a VoIP call and a phone call comes in; you're forced to make a decision to either accept or reject the phone call as it takes up the entire screen and your VOIP call might also get disconnected. If you're ever making voice calls over the Internet today, be prepared for a disruptive experience.
2. 3G or Wi-Fi are practically mandatory to use VoIP
It's incredibly rare to be able to make a meaningful voice call on a 2G network in India, no matter how good the voice compression technology being used by your VoIP service is. I say this out of the experience of trying to make calls on all popular IM apps over 2G. This should have been obvious really, since in Mumbai even text-based content like a tweet mostly fails to work on 2G. And an omnipresent 3G Internet connection across the country is impossible today.
This is the problem - if I'm making a call over an instant messenger, I have no way of knowing the Internet connectivity the receiver is experiencing at that moment. This is not a problem with regular phone calls, as their reliability is (relatively) much higher than VoIP calls.
3. VoIP calls hog battery life, and cause heating
In my experience, VoIP calls tend to hog battery life more than typical phone calls. Also, when an Internet call on a smartphone lasts for over a few minutes, it tends to get warmer than it would when on a regular phone call. I wonder how many people will accept these trade-offs for cheaper voice calls?
4. Incoming calls aren't always 'free'
In India for more than a decade, we haven't paid for incoming calls to our mobile phones. That may not be the case if you're receiving an incoming call over the Internet, because data consumption happens on both ends of that call. Now, it depends whether you're on Wi-Fi or 3G, since most broadband Internet plans are virtually unlimited or have large enough limits not to be affected by the call. That is not the case for most 3G plans. So, taking a call when you're on Wi-Fi is effectively free, but over 3G you will end up paying for some data.
5. App availability and fragmentation
There are at least a dozen instant messaging apps that people I know are using - some popular ones are WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, Skype, Hike, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, WeChat. This creates an uncertainty about which person may be available on which Internet-calling app. You can say WhatsApp could be that universal instant messenger that most of us use, but that isn't always the case. If you're on Airtel you can call an Idea user, but if you're on WhatsApp, you can't call someone on Skype. You need to start Skype yourself.
There are many benefits of calling over the internet - it's cheaper and it offers better voice clarity. Apps like Facebook Messenger and some others have useful features such as automatically reconnecting calls when you are hopping in and out of poor connectivity, so there are fewer 'call drops'. If you're making international calls, the difference in price is so great that we all willingly put up with all these hurdles to make VoIP calls. But until these issues are resolved I can't use the Internet for local calls, which should probably make the telcos a little less worried.
(Rohan Naravane oversees the Content & Product Experience at PriceBaba.com. He dreams of the day when all he will end up buying from a telecom operator is data, and nothing else.)
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