Originally published on 18th Feb 2016

Recently, I was on a call with a friend where the call quality was poor making us feel like we were talking over a walkie-talkie. My friend asked, “Are you on WiFi or 4G?” I said, “I’m connected to my WiFi network“. He said, “I’m connected to a 4G LTE network. Can we connect over a WhatsApp call?” We spoke for an hour and the call quality was much better than normal voice calls with no disturbances.

This says something! When you have two wireless devices connected to a high speed internet, the need for voice calls over traditional circuit-switched networks become obsolete. With the advent of Whatsapp calls, FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout and Viber, voice and video calls over a data connection are certainly getting better.

You might say that the telecom operators are working on VoLTE (Voice over LTE). Yes they are but how different is it from FaceTime or Skype or Google Hangout? Also, network interoperability of VoLTE is still a question.

But the real threat in the future is not from app based calling services. 

SpaceX and OneWeb – Satellite Constellations

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk with support from Google; OneWeb with a bunch of investors including Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson (and interestingly, Sunil Mittal from Airtel) are independently working on internet streaming directly from space to the entire World. OneWeb says that there would be around 700 satellites orbiting on 20 different orbital planes to cover the entire World. The current estimated speed is 50Mbps and the first deployment is expected to happen in 2019. Rumour has it that Samsung has a similar idea too.

Alphabet’s project Loon 

Project Loon is an initiative from Google X with the aim of providing internet access to remote locations on earth. High altitude balloons are used to cover an area of about 80 km diameter, delivering internet services at 4G speeds. Project Loon is partnering with telecom companies to use their unused spectrum to deliver these services. So, it can be a free service or a service where you pay Google a very cheap monthly subscription which could be a better deal than going via telecom companies.

Facebook’s solar powered internet plane

As part of Facebook’s internet.org to bring internet to two-third of the world population that do not have internet access yet, Facebook is planning to deploy solar powered internet planes that stream internet to an area of 50km in diameter per plane. In addition, they are also working on a laser technology to connect the planes to the base station. Though details are not very clear on how this would be put in to operation, this is something that needs to be in the radar. internet.org is a free internet service with limited access to the internet. Will Facebook pay the telecom companies for the data? Will they charge for full access like project loon? Not sure yet!

 Apple and Google exploring ways to become MVNO’s

There are rumours for quite sometime about Apple testing new technologies secretly to become a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO). MVNO’s make deals with telecom companies to use their network services. Its like buying clothes from Thailand in bulk and affixing your own brand and selling it for a good margin. Apple would make similar deals with ‘certain’ telecom operators all over the world and the apple devices (without a sim-card) would connect to different networks based on the geographic location. You would pay apple a monthly subscription to use the services. A good addition would be, if Apple hasn’t though about it, is to have a flat rate no matter which part of the world you are in. This can be a game changer for frequent travellers who now burn a lot of money on roaming charges. A similar inititive by Google is Project Fi

 In every way, there are enough investments being made by the mentioned companies to take a big pie out of the telecom companies. It might not imply that the telecom companies will shut shop tomorrow. But certainly, if Telecom companies fail to look at alternative business models, I’m sure many will perish.

Have any interesting thoughts around this? Do leave a comment.

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