The Untethering of Telco

Telcos have been losing their customer ownership and authority for many years.  First there was 1984, and the anti-Orwellian breakup of AT&T, and the ensuring deregulation of telecommunications around the world.  Then there was mobile, and the internet, two upstart technologies that threatened everything about telco.  Then there came over the top (OTT) service providers, and the device manufacturers – first mobile phone manufacturers, then every other consumer electronics manufacturer, then every metering and instrumentation manufacturer who could stick a SIM card in their electronics.  Now Google has changed tack on Android, and is upping the ante in its relationship (if it can be called that) with the service provider.  It is going to work with device manufacturers to get their devices out early and direct – specifically targeted at wresting control from the carriers.  According to the Wall Street Journal, this shift “marks a bid to exert more control over key features and apps that run on Android-powered phones and tablets, thus reducing the influence of wireless carriers over such devices.”

Tor many of the device manufacturers, telcos represent important channels.  for others, that’s less the case.  Austek, for example, has no such channel, and is deciding that rather than laboriously build such a channel, telco by telco, country by country, they will sell directly over the internet.  Motorola of course is becoming part of Google, and will continue its hybrid approach to the market, presumably in a trajectory that continues to reduce its dependence on the telco as channel.  Apple has long had alternate channels, and as tablets play an increasingly more important role in their business (especially with the much touted 7″ iPad due for release later this year) their dependence on iPhone sales will be reduced.  Tablet with a dialer, rather than phone with apps, you see.

The remaining tether to the service provider appears to me to be the phone number.   You know what would be a great app?  An identity app.  A simple, single function app that’s free, and that you share with your friends, that allows you to publish your current phone number, or – better again – that simply updates automatically when you swap SIM cards.  Then when you want to call someone, all you have to do is connect the app to your contact book, and call your contact using the app, instead of 555-1234-5678.  It would be great for people who swap SIMs a lot.  What’s more, it could ‘sense’ when someone else has changed SIM, or phone.  It would tie both SIM and IMEI number together, and create a single identity.  So when someone calls in, the app would be aware of the incoming call, go back to the server and ask about the number that’s dialling, and return with information to the recipient of the call saying that even though you’ve never seen this number before, it’s John who’s calling.

In Japan, something similar could be done with an email app, as email addresses are tethered to telcos there as well.

The net result would be a small footprint app, distributed for free, and promoted across social media.  We could figure out a business model later :-)

An Irish company called YAC (You’re Always Connected) tried to do something similar about ten or twelve years ago, but it wasn’t the same – they had this thing called YAC numbers, which were actual phone numbers, but universal across networks ( seems to be still limping along with a kind of eReceptionist thing).  Zouk Ventures (now a clean tech investor) had an investment in them.  There was a lot of config required both by the user and by the caller, which was a bit much.  They couldn’t quite get it over the line.  But the basic concept – removing the phone number tether from service provider control – remains valid.

Now.  Who can build my app for me….

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