FAQ: How Google Voice Could Change the Wireless Industry

In this FAQ, we discuss what Google Voice does, how it's different from other Web-based voice providers and how it could challenge the telecom industry to add more value to its services.

Google began ramping up its efforts to promote Google Voice application this week by making it available for BlackBerry and Android smartphone users.

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Google Voice is the company's latest attempt to shake up the wireless telecom industry and is a follow-up of sorts to its open-source Android mobile platform. Just as Android was developed in part to spur innovation within the mobile development community and also to give users the ability to switch to new carriers without swapping their mobile devices, Google Voice was created in part to make it easier for users to change mobile carriers without sacrificing their phone numbers. In this FAQ, we'll discuss what Google Voice does, how it's different from other Web-based voice providers and how it could challenge the telecom industry to add more value to its services. (See also: Google grabs 1 million phone numbers for Google Voice)

Is Google Voice another VoIP-based service such as Skype or Truphone that offers low-cost wireless calls?

No. In fact, Google Voice doesn't use VoIP but rather makes calls through the standard public switch telephone network. When you place a call to someone using Google Voice on your device, it essentially routes the call through the Google cloud, which then sends the call out to its final destination. This way, the person receiving your call sees the call coming from your Google phone number rather than the number given by your wireless carrier?

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Does this mean that I'll still have to pay my wireless carrier for minutes used over Google Voice?

Yes. Unlike VoIP services such as Skype, Google Voice is not an alternative to using up minutes from your standard wireless carrier.

So what's the advantage?

The most obvious benefit of Google Voice is that it lets you switch wireless carriers and keep the same Google phone number. Thus, if you switch from AT&T to Verizon, you can still give people your Google number and have it ring on your new service.

And then there are all the add-ons. You can program your Google phone number to ring on multiple devices if you want to, including both mobile and landline phones. This way, an important incoming call to your office can also ring simultaneously on your cell phone and your home phone if you happen to be away from your desk.

"Google Voice is trying to become a unified voice communications service for consumers, especially those who are on the go a lot," explain Jeff Orr, an analyst for ABI Research. "In general it's trying to solve the problem of having multiple contact points, so it's developed a ‘follow-me' service that unifies both wireless and wireline communications."

In addition to providing one number for voice calls, Google Voice also serves as a hub for SMS as it lets users send text messages from any of their devices or even right over the Web on their computer. And as far as voicemail goes, Google Voice has the ability to provide automated voicemail transcriptions that can be sent through both SMS and through standard email. This means that users can get the general gist of a voicemail without dialing into their voicemail service and listening through an entire message.

There are many, many other features to Google Voice that Google describes at length here.

How are wireless carriers going to react to this?

If there's one thing that gives telecom companies nightmares, it's the thought of being relegated to providing "dumb pipes" that only transmit data and don't provide any value-added services for their customers. In this light, carriers might not be overly happy to have Google Voice become too popular, even though Google Voice users would still be paying the telcos for their voice and data services. Net neutrality proponents such as the media advocacy group Free Press have met Google Voice with enthusiasm, as they think it could give users the ability to seamlessly switch carriers if their current carrier is too restrictive of what they can and cannot use on their mobile devices.

"If Google Voice becomes more widely adopted, it will further condition people to think of their handheld device as another Internet device where they can use any application they choose," says Free Press campaign director Tim Karr. "For all of its strengths as a device, the iPhone is not truly delivering the Internet in your pocket. It's an Internet that has certain services and apps blocked."

Additionally, Infonetics Research analyst Diane Myers says that Google's strong relationships with third-party developers gives the company an edge over both carriers and over-the-top VoIP providers in pushing out new and innovative applications for their voice service.

"Skype has a huge install base, they have a lot of users and brand recognition, but Google has the added advantage over them because they can start tapping into a larger developer community that they've been working with for years," she says.

Of course, Google Voice doesn't present the same competition for revenues to traditional carriers that Skype does. But Orr thinks that it could force carriers to look into changing how they offer value-added services over their networks if they want to avoid becoming "dumb pipes."

"I don't see Google Voice competing with the traditional telecom companies," he says. "But maybe carriers need to examine the competitive space they operate in and understand how to implement more digital features to their existing services."

This story, "FAQ: How Google Voice Could Change the Wireless Industry" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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