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Modular by Design — Telephony

Another area where the modular approach is starting to have an impact is in the telephone service arena.

Traditionally, telephone service was offered on a land line and was divided into local service, long distance, and extra features like caller ID, call forwarding, etc… The model was predicated on the concept of one device (the phone) receiving a package of services.

The mobile phone business started having an impact by untying the phone lines from the wall, making the concept of localization a relatively moot point. Once localization was broken, the differentiation between local and long distance disappeared which left a division only between connectivity and extra features. Since most of the signals going over the air became digital, the cost of delivering extra services dropped to almost nothing, destroying the competitive value of such offerings.

While mobile phone service made headway against traditional land lines, a new set of telephone offerings appeared on the Internet: Voice over IP. With VoIP, telephone just becomes a software issue, unbundling telephone from the concept of a telephone network and dropping the connectivity issue altogether. While mobile phones were tied to a particular phone network, VoIP phones are not tied to any network: they can run anywhere as long as they are running on an Internet infrastructure.

It is due to this realization that AT&T abandoned the consumer market. Since services like Vonage are redefining the concept of telephony by moving the phone away from the lines and away from the device. Vonage service runs on a number of platform including telephones, computers and will soon run on PDAs equipped with a wireless card. This means that companies which were once relying on the bundling of a line, a device, and a set of features can no longer do so. It also means that the concept of overseas long distance will eventually disappear since one could easily run a telephone service on their computer with a local number in a foreign country.

For example, I can envision a time when I will have a phone number in France that will relay my calls to my computer, phone or PDA wherever I am, making it impossible to guess whether I am in the United States, Europe or Asia at any given times. However, I may sound sleepy in the middle of the caller’s daytime because I could be in a time zone where it is the middle of the night.

With this model now in place, the challenge of telephony is no longer a local one but a global one. Telephone companies will have to fight against companies all over the globe in order to retain their customers and since the delivery of those services does not rely on the introduction of expensive networks in order to provision service, it will soon be possible for small companies to provision phone services. One can expect countries like China and India to be the recipients of such outsourcing and your telephone company could well be located in one of those countries in the future.

How does one solve this issue? By providing cheaper products, emphasizing customer service, generally doing right by the customer or getting out of the competitive space. The power base has shifted to the consumers and the only way to fight it is to serve them better than a competitor could.

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