Five obstacles preventing VoIP calls from going mainstream
During the recent net neutrality debate and even in the past, telecom operators have claimed that OTT players such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype are hurting their revenue. There are fears that the money telecom operators used to make on phone calls and text messages will run out because of free instant messaging services. While it’s obvious that texting on WhatsApp or Google Hangouts is cheaper than SMS/MMS, calling people over the internet can be cheaper, even if you’re on 3G.
So why don’t we call everyone using these popular instant messaging apps instead of calling them on expensive voice calls? There are a few obstacles that prevent us from doing this today:
1. VoIP applications are second-class citizens on mobile operating systems
Have you ever been on a Facebook or Skype call, only to be interrupted by a traditional phone call? In my experience on iOS and Android, VoIP apps are treated like second-class citizens, perhaps because mobile operating systems today treat phone calls before anything else.
It’s extremely irritating when you’re on a VoIP call and a phone call comes in; you are forced to make the decision to accept or reject the phone call as it takes up the entire screen and your VOIP call may also be disconnected. If you make voice calls over the Internet today, prepare for a disruptive experience.
2. 3G or Wi-Fi are practically mandatory to use VoIP
It’s incredibly rare to be able to make a meaningful voice call on a 2G network in India, no matter how good the voice compression technology your VoIP service is using. I say this from the experience of trying to make calls on all popular instant messaging apps over 2G. It should have been really obvious because in Mumbai even textual content like a tweet usually doesn’t work on 2G. And a ubiquitous 3G Internet connection across the country is impossible today.
That’s the problem – if I make a call via IM, I have no way of knowing what internet connectivity the receiver is experiencing at the time. This is not a problem with regular phone calls, as their reliability is (relatively) much higher than VoIP calls.
3. VoIP calls for battery life and causes overheating
In my experience, VoIP calls tend to hog battery life more than regular phone calls. Also, when an internet call on a smartphone lasts for more than a few minutes, it tends to get hotter than a normal phone call. I wonder how many people will accept these compromises for cheaper voice calls?
4. Incoming calls aren’t always “free”
In India for over a decade we have not paid for incoming calls on our cell phones. This may not be the case if you receive an incoming call over the Internet, as data consumption occurs at both ends of that call. Now, it depends if you’re on Wi-Fi or 3G, as most high-speed internet plans are virtually unlimited or have limits wide enough not to be affected by calling. This is not the case for most 3G packages. So taking a call when you’re on Wi-Fi is effectively free, but with 3G you’ll end up paying for some data.
5. Availability and fragmentation of applications
There are at least a dozen instant messaging apps that people I know use – some popular ones are WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, Skype, Hike, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, WeChat. This creates uncertainty as to which person may be available on which internet calling app. You can say that WhatsApp could be that universal instant messenger that most of us use, but that’s not always the case. If you are on Airtel you can call an Idea user, but if you are on WhatsApp you cannot call someone on Skype. You must start Skype yourself.
Calls over the Internet have many advantages – they are cheaper and offer better voice clarity. Apps such as Facebook Messenger and others have useful features such as automatically reconnecting calls when you enter and exit poor connectivity so there are fewer “dial calls”. If you are making international calls, the price difference is so big that we all gladly accept all these hurdles to make VoIP calls. But until these issues are resolved, I can’t use the internet for local calls, which should probably give the telcos some comfort.
(Rohan Naravane oversees content and product experience at PriceBaba.com. He dreams of the day when all he ends up buying from a telco is data, and nothing else.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV assumes no responsibility or liability for them.