Along Comes a New Generation of Texting – Landline SMS

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This post first appeared on my SAP Blog on August 2, 2013.

When you think of SMS messaging, typically people refer to messaging via mobile phones through Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).  Over the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of the so-called NUVOs – Network Unaffiliated Virtual Operator – a type of OTT service provider who offers phone number based and app-based messaging on smart devices that also interworks with the existing SMS ecosystem. This means that a NUVO subscriber can send and receive messages from an AT&T or a T-Mobile or Verizon subscriber.

The NUVO model has worked well in the North American market and has played a role in mitigating some of the overall drop in traffic that SMS has seen as the result of pure-OTT plays – iMessage remains the biggest factor in a roughly 15% drop – but both Kik and WhatsApp have also cannibalized this ecosystem to an extent. Of course in Western Europe and Asia, various OTTs to the tune of almost 1billion active users have also played havoc on SMS traffic volumes (and of course, associated revenues for MNOs). 

Now, just when you thought that you understood the messaging ecosystem, here comes landline texting. And I’m talking about text-enabling that desk-phone that sits beside your laptop or monitors in your cube or office. I’m also talking about text-enabling the phone number that your parents and/or grandparents have had for over 50 years.  I’m also talking about the millions of toll-free numbers – those 800,866, 877 numbers.  I’m even talking about the vanity toll-free numbers that we all know — all text-enabled.

“Whoa!” you say.  Bill!  Dude!  How can this BE?  Well, think about how NUVOs helped make messaging device independent and essentially created the concept of cloud-based messaging. Different companies have a different view of what is cloud messaging, but to me, it is what enables NUVO/OTT users to be able to resume or move texting conversations to different devices – a tablet, a mobile device, even a desktop.  Mobile operators have quickly gotten into “cloud-based messaging.”  Verizon Messages provides just that capability and it works great.

For supporting landline texting, there are now a handful of companies that are providing app-based messaging; however, instead of assigning a new telephone number (acquired from various CLECs) that is dedicated to a particular messaging service (think a Pinger number or a TextPlus number), the existing landline and/or toll-free number is associated with that app.  Otherwise, the service is cloud-based as it can work across multiple devices and interoperate with the existing SMS ecosystem. 

The Cambridge MA company HeyWire (an early and still successful NUVO with over 3 million active monthly users) recently launched HeyWire Business – a texting service that enables businesses to text-enable their existing landlines.  Their service provides for message encryption as well as messaging apps for both mobile devices and Web-based for desktops, leveraging their existing HeyWire cloud for dissemination of messages to users’ devices.  HeyWire Business can scale from small business to enterprise class services. 

While HeyWire is focusing on business landlines, they aren’t the only one.  Seattle-based ZipWhip just announced that they have partnered with Primary Wave Media to bring texting to vanity toll-free numbers.  This is significant because this means that you will be able to text your favorite vanity toll-free number and then likely carry on a conversation via text vs. having to call, potentially wade through IVR layers to speak to a real human.  ZipWhip is also promoting text-enabling any landline or toll-free number per their website and they provide some very nice graphics as to how it works.

With around 140 million landlines in use in the U.S. today and tens of millions of toll-free numbers, text-enabling all of them is not an easy proposition, but it is one that can significantly boost the “SMS ecosystem” in this country and probably Canada too (what we refer to as the “+1 market,” in the mobile industry).  Both ZipWhip and HeyWire have early starts and there are others out there as well that are silently working on similar propositions. 

Landline texting, like the “original” MNO texting and now NUVO texting is not without its detractors and controversy; however, for the +1 market, there are accepted best-practices and guidelines to insure that all players work together to keep undesirable, unsolicited traffic off the network. We, as an industry work very hard to make sure the texting ecosystem is not polluted by masses of undesirable spam and unsolicited advertisements.  Imagine now, using your home landline number as your texting number for close friends, you mobile number for texting business associates only.  This further helps to sort out the BYOD questions as to how one can be reached in personal communication situations.  For example, if your business landline was text-enabled you might not want to give out your personal mobile phone number in business-only situations, anymore.  Landline texting, extends the choices that users can make as to what numbers to make available and to whom. 

I will go as far as to say, that at least in the +1 market, every assigned telephone number will eventually be text-enabled – mobile or landline (technically, CLEC numbers assigned to NUVO user accounts are “landline” numbers) well before the end of this decade.  If the user of that number is not signed up for a texting app or account, then someone will probably provide a bounce-back and way to notify the number-holder that someone attempted to text it.  But for now, and the foreseeable future, landline texting is focused on already-existing and assigned landlines (which are already part of the voice ecosystem).  As for the existing landlines outside of the +1 market, we have to remember that in many countries – it cost an MNO subscriber more to send a message to a landline vs. another MNO subscriber.  That’s simply a policy  problem that can only be overcome by many of the non+1 mobile operators themselves (and one reason why, in my opinion, that non-SMS OTTs have succeeded so well in many non+1 markets).  Still there are pockets of landline texting all over the world, but not nearly to the extent that we are starting to see in the +1 countries.

Enabling another service such as texting on a traditionally voice-only telephone number (e.g. landline) begins to set the stage for the evolution of the ecosystem to a multi-service based solution where capabilities such as Rich Communications Suite (RCS) starts to come into play.  Messaging plays a significant role in RCS and RCS messaging is backwardly compatible to SMS/MMS. So, enabling texting for landlines, begins to incrementally set the stage for bigger and better communications systems that are on the way.

As the texting ecosystem continues to evolve and mature, landline texting will take its natural place along with MNO and NUVO SMS.  This adds further SMS differentiation and advantages over the non-SMS OTTs (e.g. Kik, WhatsApp) as these users would have no way to reach businesses that have text-enabled their toll-free numbers or landline numbers (and of course, vice-versa).  With around 140 million active landlines today, active texting by a fraction can have a profound effect on the utility and further ubiquitous-ness of SMS-based texting.

Agree, disagree?  I’d love to see your comments.