Opinion: Wait, so why do we need phones again?

Phone service is obsolete, and I'm tired of carriers holding me back. I want Google to be my phone company.
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld (US))
  • 19 January, 2013 12:13

Facebook this week unveiled voice calling through its iPhone Messenger app.

The reaction to this news was the sound of crickets.

Announcing an app that lets you talk over the Internet is like opening a coffee shop in Seattle, a casino in Vegas or a Famous Original Ray's Pizza in New York City: Nice, but it's something we already have too much of already.

In fact, the sole benefit of Facebook's new talk feature is that if I'm already using the Messenger app, and want to make a call, I can save the three seconds it might take me to open another app.

Not exactly a communications revolution.

Why phones service is obsolete

I haven't used a mobile or landline phone service since July.

I've talked to people using my iPhone (and also my laptop), but I've done it using Google Voice, Google+, Google Talk and Skype over Wi-Fi.

I've been giving out my Google Voice number for years. People call me. I answer the phone. We have a conversation. We hang up. No big deal.

Most of the people who call me, and whom I call, don't know I'm using the Internet, rather than the phone system, to converse. More importantly, they don't care.

They also often don't know I'm in Africa.

I'm old enough to remember when a long distance call was a big deal. ("Hurry up and pick up the phone! It's long distance!")

It was a big deal because a long distance call used to cost a lot. Then it got cheap. And now it's free. I don't pay a penny for Google Voice, and make calls from Europe and Africa to the U.S. all the time.

Yet most of us still use phone service with our mobile phones or even -- gasp! -- landline phones. The reason is not that we need phone service. The reason is that the companies that provide phone service need the money.

How we got here

It's simple. First we got the landline telephone. Then we got mobile phones. Then we got Internet-connected PCs. Then Internet connectivity was added to mobile phones. Then we got applications and apps that let us make calls over our Internet connections.

Now we don't need phone service anymore.

I know that Internet-based, or voice-over-IP (VoIP), service has a longer voice delay and is in that way worse than your typical mobile phone call. And, for that matter, landline phone service offers higher quality than a mobile call. (And records are higher quality than MP3s. And letters are higher quality than email. Yet we routinely choose lower quality in some respects in order to have more features and lower cost.)

The truth is that Internet-based phone calls are good enough. There's a delay, but the sound quality can be superior. More to the point, voice communication itself has been sidelined for most communication. Young people are gravitating to IM or social network messaging. Business people and others are embracing video conversations. All kinds of apps are providing innovative voice communications that aren't phone calls, exactly.

These "intercom," "push-to-talk" or "walkie-talkie" apps are cheap or free, and so common as to be a banality.

For phone conversations, we can use Google Voice, Google Talk, FaceTime, Skype or any number of similar VoIP apps.

My preference by far is Google Voice. It lets me set up custom voice-mail greetings for specific people or groups of people. It sends my voicemail and text conversations to my email inbox. It lies to telemarketers for me, faking a "this number is no longer in service" recording. It enables me to do both calls and SMS text-messaging via a browser on my laptop, if I want. It's secure because I use Google's two-step authentication.

Google Voice is not a pure VoIP service. It jumps in and out of the normal phone system for various purposes, which makes the service slightly more feature rich. But a great Internet-calling service does not need a phone system, just the Internet.

Google Voice has a long list of features that I've wanted from my mobile carrier, AT&T, for years, but they've never delivered. AT&T has been too busy throttling my data usage and trying to keep me from using alternatives to its exploitive SMS service.

The difference between AT&T and Google highlights exactly the problem with the old model for phone calls and the new one.

Why I want Google to provide phone service

The fundamental difference between carriers like AT&T and advertiser-supported online app and information service companies like Google is that AT&T's model loses money when I use more data, and Google's makes money when I use more data.

Here's an example. I signed up long ago for an "unlimited" data plan with AT&T, which has since been discontinued for new subscribers. However, as long as I maintain my AT&T account, I have been "grandfathered in" and can continue using it. I'm supposed to be grateful for their generosity.

When I reach 5 GB monthly data usage on AT&T, they throttle my data speed. When I called to complain about this, they told me that the government requires it.

Google, meanwhile, is building up massively fast, massively cheap home Internet connectivity in Kansas City, Kan., (and soon elsewhere, they say) because they want everybody to use the Internet a lot more.

Imagine how much better, more cost effective and efficient it would be if "carriers" provided only mobile broadband data connectivity, instead of that plus phone service.

Imagine how much smaller, lighter, cheaper and more battery-efficient our phones would be if they didn't have phone capability, only Internet connectivity.

And imagine if the people running those networks worked night and day to figure out ways to get you to transmit more data, not less.

The wireless carriers spend all their time and all our money trying to avoid becoming a dumb pipe of data. But now that we've got smartphones, a dumb pipe is exactly what we need -- just a much bigger one.

Phone service is obsolete. The ability to talk to someone using a phone is just another app.

So let's dismantle the AT&T model and replace it with the Google model, in which phone service is an app that's integrated into other communications services, and where there's competition between many companies to provide us with the best possible service at the lowest possible price.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on

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