It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore. How true those immortal words from a classic Cliff Richard song have become for CSPs worldwide. With voice volumes and corresponding revenues dropping faster than Prince Harry’s trousers, telcos need to ask if it’s due to OTT competition, the rise in voice apps on smartphones or that people are simply talking less.

Since its inception, simple telephone service (POTS)was our lifeline to the world, at least the world we knew. Talking was everything. The few people we knew overseas or interstate were communicated with by mail because long-distance trunk and international calls were just too expensive and purely the domain of business and the rich and famous.

With improvements in technology, increased demand and universal service obligations, calls became cheaper and boy, did we make up for lost time. Talk was king and stayed that way right into the cellular mobile era, despite the appalling drop in quality offered at the time.

So here was the first step in the fall of voice as we knew it. Early mobile networks offered lousy quality, dropped calls, poor coverage, expensive devices and costly call rates, all teamed up with complex tariff plans to make the early fascination with mobile wane over time, only to be resuscitated, in spurts, by improvements in technology.

The fact that we could now make calls anywhere, and at any time, shifted voice from being a tool to a disruptive nuisance – both in receiving and generating. The advent of email, messaging, social networking et al, have made it easier to avoid calling someone for fear of disturbing or annoying them. Worse still, the fear of your call not being answered or being diverted to the dreaded voicemail system, the epitome of ‘impersonality.’

So, now we are talking less, but that does not explain the plethora of OTT VOIP offerings that have hit the market, or the sudden urge for CSPs to offer competitive products. Is it purely a knee-jerk reaction for the former to get some share of the voice market or simply a defensive move by CSPs to stave of the buzzards picking at what’s left of the voice carcass? Whatever it is, it won’t work, and here’s why – too many choices!

Whatever ‘free’ VOIP option you go for you have to hope all your friends follow suit. When it was basically Skype to choose from it was easy, but now there are so many to choose from it’s impossible to make the right decision. WhatsApp, Nimbuzz, Skype, Viber – need I go on? Each one needs an app on your device, each one needs a unique identifier or username, each one will charge you to connect to a ‘normal’ phone number and each one claims it’s better than the others.

Despite signs to the contrary, voice is actually far from dead. Revenues from voice, on the other hand, are definitely heading south. At some point, CSPs are going to have to decide whether to compete with OTT VOIP, block it, partner with it or just give up on voice completely and concentrate on just being a network provider.

If we get back to basics, CSPs are holding the key – that humble phone number! The simplest way and cleanest way to make a voice call is to use a number. It’s unique and it works very well from any handset, any device, any network, any country, anywhere – and that’s more than you can say for VOIP apps. The reason people go for VOIP is that it is usually free. Once a voice app takes hold, the user tends to use more of its functions like messaging, further eroding the CSP revenues.

Simple solution – give voice away free, gratis and do it now! Use the same ploy OTT VOIP players are using but with all the convenience of using that ubiquitous mobile service. Sure, charge for some calls terminating to international destinations but route them over VOIP, just like the others do.

CSPs need to stop worrying about everything being 99.999 per cent carrier grade, customers don’t expect that when something is free. Why not follow the lead of European mobile operators joining Joyn? Make voice just another data service, bundled with a data package in order to keep the customer, firstly, then be able to offer them all those great new digital services they have in the pipeline or can garner from those burgeoning.

First published at TM Forum as The Insider, 30 August 2012