Mobile messaging application WhatsApp may have shaken the telecoms industry to its core, putting the SMS text message in the shade. But Big Telecom is fighting back, in a battle some fear it is likely to lose.
Mobile voice calling is predicted to be the next line of battle. "Voice is the next big thing in mobile," Benedict Evans, a mobile analyst from San Francisco-based company Andreessen Horowitz, told CNBC via email. Research analysts at Citi predict that the move of traditional mobile telephone calls to calls made over the internet will be the "biggest transformation of mobile since its inception" and will begin take shape this year.
Traditionally, users have relied on regular PSTN (public switched telephone network) interconnection to speak to others on their mobiles. But like the text message, voice calls can now be facilitated via the internet on mobile. And like the text message, these voice calls would come at a much cheaper price than users have been accustomed to in the past. Telecom operators in Europe still generate more than 50 percent of their revenues from voice services, according to Citi estimates. The brokerage believes that calls would be worth 97 percent less if conducted over the internet.
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"The threat is not as clear to the industry on voice as it was with SMS, but the revenue base at risk is considerably higher," analysts at Citi, led by Georgios Ierodiaconou, said in a research note back in March. They believe that telecoms companies are more aware of the threat from companies like WhatsApp, but say the business models are not better protected.
WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum told the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona back in February that the firm plans to roll out a voice calling feature sometime in the second quarter of 2014. Reports show that it's likely to be an application using VoIP (voice over internet protocol), which is best known for being used by Skype. But there's also VoLTE - which uses next generation 4G wireless broadband technology.
Telecom companies are traditionally bad at innovation and service delivery, according to Evans, but he doesn't foresee a change from the norm in the short or even medium term. Jack Kent, an associate director for the mobile team at research firm IHS, believes that scale, cost and convenience will mean that it is unlikely an operator-led voice messaging service will be able to compete with a disruptor like Whatsapp.
"A big issue for all of these types of service is the speed at which the companies execute; operators have frequently proved too slow to be able to compete with more fast-moving over-the-top content (OTT) competitors," he told CNBC via email.
Kent said that traditional operators like E-Plus in Germany, Airtel in India and T-Mobile in the U.S. had actually partnered with app makers in other ventures and this might be a better way to progress rather than trying to fight them. Citi predicts that telecom companies like BT could benefit in the long term, as well as cable firms, as they have the flexibility to still generate revenue with cheaper data plans for mobile users. Predominantly mobile companies are the most susceptible to the change, Citi added, with Vodafone, Belgacom, KPN, Telecom Italia and Telekom Austria all looking vulnerable.
Vodafone told CNBC that VoLTE technology is something that it is "exploring" but did not have anything to announce at this time. Belgacom said it had no "concrete plans" to create any mobile VoIP or mobile VoLTE capabilities, but it was looking at the possibility.