Last year, in the context of the EU Telecom Review, I wrote extensively on the issue of "substitutable" telecom services. The EU wanted to assess which online services could be functional substitutes to phone and messaging services and how to regulate them. The topic is far from dead (and has recently been addressed in the context of national security snooping) but I wanted to tackle here a subset of that topic that is often overlooked and seems to me of increasing importance.
Let me illustrate this issue in very concrete ways.
I am currently collaborating with a partner on a project. I hadn't heard from him in over a week and I was wondering what was going on so I emailed him. He answered immediately by saying "I sent you a message on Skype". Skype isn't ‘always on’ on my desktop, so I'd missed his message.
I have recently moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai. In China, due to "Great Firewall" restrictions, most western apps are non-functional so everyone uses WeChat for instant messaging (and much more). In Hong Kong where the Firewall doesn't operate, people have choice and WeChat is a minor app only used by those with strong ties to mainland China. People and businesses mostly use WhatsApp. Moving here I had to install WhatsApp on day 2 to organise a furniture delivery, and I have no doubt that it will become my main means of instant messaging communication. That means I need to use two messaging apps in parallel to keep up with contacts in China as well as contacts here.
I also use Facebook Messenger to contact friends on Facebook, simply because it's convenient. That one doesn't really overlap with my professional life, but it's still used on a regular basis.
This means that I now have to check four apps for messages in addition to email, voice and text messages. And I’m not even talking about the minor messaging tools via LinkedIn and other services. The groups of people present on each of these apps are different, and while they may partially overlap, most of them don't. In addition, when they do overlap, it's even worse, because you no longer know where to reach them or where they might reach you. I'm obviously not the only one faced with this predicament. It's a mess.
What does this have to do with the EU Telecom Review and regulatory topics? Very simple: the only universal directory for communications in existence today (apart from email) is the phone service (and associated text messaging for mobile). In other words, the only system that works universally for voice and short messaging – no matter which country you're in – is still the phone system. All of the alternatives are closed directories. They're free (for the most part), but they're not interoperable.
(Incidentally, probably the most annoying aspect of all this is when you receive an invite to Skype for Business which is Microsoft’s call conferencing platform. Guess what: Skype for Business does not interoperate with Skype, despite the name. How dumb is that?)
Anyway, the point that many regulators, I fear, are missing is that despite the reduced usage of voice and texting through the good old telephony system, that universality has enormous value. It's a sad state of affairs that telecom operators were never able to leverage that value and just looked at dwindling numbers while pulling their hair out. The fact remains that having a universal directory is a vital necessity both for individuals and businesses.
As countries look at getting rid of traditional PSTN systems (BT has announced a 2025 switch-off), there's a very real risk of that universality being thrown out like the proverbial baby with the bathwater. The key regulatory issue as I see it not whether WhatsApp or Skype should be treated as traditional telecom services (in my view, as soon as they interconnect with the PSTN system they should; otherwise they shouldn't.) The key issue is whether we have something to replace the universal directory that the telephone system offers and whether that can be put in place before PSTN becomes economically unsustainable.
In other words, in the same way that communicating with phones to anyone worked no matter what brand or model your phone is, communicating with apps should be equally universal. It's high time regulators looked into interoperability issues. I don't know what the solution is. It could be enforcing interoperability on substitutable communication services; it could be building a universal directory from scratch and forcing that as the reference rather than soon-to-be-obsolete phone numbers. There are probably other solutions too. I just think this is an underestimated issue that needs to be addressed quickly. The technology is certainly already there to make this happen.