|Issue:||Europe I 2011|
|Topic:||Fixed numbers going mobile|
|Title:||CEO and co-founder|
Rod Ullens is CEO and co-founder of Voxbone, a leader in worldwide geographical, toll free telephone numbers. Before founding Voxbone, he provided advice, training and seminars to European carriers, such as Belgacom mobile, KPN, France Telecom and Orange, as well as several European governments. Rod Ullens holds a B.S. in telecommunication engineering from the University of Louvain in Belgium.
The telephone number, the original personal communications identifier, remains a telecom operator’s greatest single asset. Yet the number system hasn’t evolved to meet the needs of a globally mobile society. Operators must make it easier to port numbers internationally or risk devaluating them. International telephone numbers already exist in many countries; they give mobile operators the ability to assign and port virtual international phone numbers from one country to subscriber handsets in another and provide international connectivity at nominal subscription rates.
Society has become increasingly mobile, so many of us regularly relocating for work or study and need a simple and cost-effective way of keeping in touch with those we’ve left behind. And while it is relatively straightforward to have a personal email address that we keep for life wherever we’re located, changes in circumstance and service provision can still necessitate the need for new phone numbers, whether mobile or landline. While it may seem preposterous, customers are still regularly forced to give up their telephone numbers and change a vital part of what identifies them to other people. It has always been this way. Why would it be in the telecoms industry’s own interests to change this historical practice now? A simple glance at recent trends in mobile telephony provides the answer. Greater mobility and the expansion of global markets have led to increased international call volumes year on year while subscriber bases and network coverage have continued to grow. Alongside this, advances in technology have put multimedia smartphone devices into the hands of a growing number of consumers, which enable easy access to new networks such as WiFi, 3G or 4G and new protocols such as VoIP. Regular international calls can be very expensive and fall outside of most monthly minutes plans but suddenly customers have a choice when deciding to make an international call. Do they go through their mobile operator, or do they bypass them entirely and use a third-party application that promises much lower rates? The convergence of these trends has created demanding customers who want value-added services instead of simple voice calls and easy and low rate plans as opposed to obscure tariffs. New Internet-based communications networks already offer the world’s biggest networks; they are able to connect billions of people and now threaten the primacy of the telephone number. So, as long as the telecoms industry continues to deal with customers in a manner that is line-focused rather than based around the individual, it is only helping to sideline itself, pushing users into the arms of alternative services that eschew traditional numbers altogether. This places the global telecoms industry at a major crossroads. Does it choose to fight and slow down the erosion of international call revenues by blocking third-party applications, limiting 3G data traffic and charging premium rates? Or does it choose to innovate by using new opportunities to offer value-added services and content and maintain the central role of the telephone number? We are firm believers in this second approach, which has helped mobile operators to open up new revenue streams. In fact, telcos should go much further and make number porting as easy as possible by building partnerships – for instance, involving third parties in the creation of a centralised database that helps to support more features on numbers such as presence, video etc. and also store these capabilities. International telephone numbers already exist in many countries, enabling mobile operators and virtual operators to have international geographic phone numbers pointed to the handsets of subscribers, including the ability to port a landline number onto a mobile phone. For example a person from Poland who lives and works in London could theoretically still use the same fixed number they had back in Warsaw alongside a new UK mobile number. Using VoIP, the mobile operator could then charge the customer a flat monthly fee to receive calls on the original Polish number regardless of their current location. Friends and family back home would then be able to continue to call the familiar number to stay in touch at local rates, rather than using a software client or PIN code and long access number to stay in touch. This is likely to increase customer commitment and encourage them to use their mobile network rather than exploring a more complicated alternative. This is a compelling proposition for many users and for mobile operators as well. Foreign communities, immigrants, business people and frequent travellers are all likely to be willing to pay a flat monthly rate in order to make their friends’, families’ and their own lives easier and to facilitate contact with those they physically leave behind. Allowing a user to receive incoming calls on a foreign number which has been assigned to their SIM also means subscribers will be more likely to use their handsets to make outgoing international calls, thereby increasing traffic on the network and boosting the operator’s revenues. As a unique global identifier the telephone number remains a network operator’s single greatest asset. Yet the world has moved on and it simply no longer makes sense to rigidly tie them down to a specific country or city. A new kind of geography is being formed that is about local presence and global relationships far more than distance or national borders. The operators have a great opportunity to innovate, reflect users’ needs and open up new revenue streams. They should seize it with both hands. Case study – International Favourites UK operator O2 has embraced the benefits of VoIP by introducing a service that makes international calling both simple and affordable. The service is offered in collaboration with Jajah, a Telefonica subsidiary specializing in IP-telephony solutions. The ‘International Favourites’ add-on offers a brand new telecom experience to those who have friends and family abroad. Users pay a flat fee of £10 per month in return for 3,000 minutes (50 hours) of calls to three selected international landlines and a virtual overseas – ‘Call Me’ – number which friends and family back home can call without paying international rates. The number complements the subscriber’s UK mobile number allowing them to have two phone numbers mapped to the same device. The billing process is simple, as it is added directly to the customer’s regular monthly bill and it works with any O2 phone. How does it work? O2 customers that subscribe to the International Favourites service receive a phone number from the country of their choice. Their friends and family in that country can dial this number and will only be charged as a normal local call. The call is then transmitted through an IP network to the UK, where O2 sends the call to the handset of the subscriber that registered for this number. The subscriber will receive a regular incoming call that does not require a special phone or application. International Favourites in action Juan lives in London and he regularly speaks to his family and friends in Madrid, Spain. O2 International Favourites gives Juan a local phone number from Madrid for his friends to call. They can now reach him on a local number from their home town anytime and Juan can answer the call with his cell phone, which of course still supports his UK mobile number as well.