AT&T Predicts: Bye Bye Cell Phone Voice, Hello Cell Phone VoIP

Over the past year or two I’ve blogged several times about my expectations that, once cellular phone service enters the 4G data generation, we’ll rapidly see the use of VoIP clients on those phones, eliminating traditional cellular voice. Now, it turns out, even AT&T is agreeing with me.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, at an investor conference in New York a week ago, predicted that within two years cell phone companies will be offering data-only plans. “I’ll be surprised if, in the next 24 months, we don’t see people in the market place with data-only plans,” Stephenson said. “I just think that’s inevitable.”

Craftily, Stephenson didn’t actually say that AT&T itself had such data-only plans on the drawing board. But the fact is, the company does already offer such plans, primarily for tablet computers. And it’s no secret that VoIP providers, such as Phone.com, are rapidly crafting applications that effectively turn those tablets in VoIP phones, either using built-in speakers, microphones and even cameras, or using Bluetooth headsets. Indeed such applications for cell phones themselves are similarly appearing.

It thus behooves me to speculate on the difference between a tablet computer running, say, the forthcoming Windows 8, and an LTE-based cell phone running … ahem … a Windows Mobile 8. Seems to me if that cell phone is data only, the only real difference is the size of the screen, and the fact that you can put the cell phone in your pocket. Actually, I sport a Windows Phone 7.5 device, one that has both physical and virtual keyboards. And a mini-version of Microsoft Office. So, do I have a phone or an ultra-portable computer?

Now it’s obvious that if AT&T, and its competitors, start selling data-only instead of voice plans there’s the little issue of lost revenue from voice. In part I’d expect to see that made up in higher charges for the data, and indeed an astute observer might note that’s exactly what’s been happening in the industry over the past six months, what with data caps and the disappearance of unlimited data plans. The cellular companies, I think, are also relying on additional revenue from all those tablet users, the majority of whom these days buy their devices with Wi-Fi only.

The implications of the entire situation for business users of all sizes is also interesting. It means that a tablet, or a cell “phone” that’s data-only, can serve as an extension on a VoIP business phone system. For the small office-home office (SOHO) market, it means the businessman can travel just about anywhere and never miss his business calls, without even the need to go online to program call forwarding. For larger small businesses simply replace the word “businessman” with employee or proprietor.

And of course for those who still want the traditional desk telephone, there’s still the ATA and/or business phone with built-in VoIP capability, such as those offered by Phone.com. Plus, of course, the virtual PBX capabilities of Phone.com service, which means the desk phone, pocketable “cell” phone, and LTE-enabled tablet can all “ring” at the same time, a flexibility unheard of just a few years ago. And with Phone.com plans, there isn’t even any extra charge for the capability.

Stuart Zipper is currently a contributing editor to Communications Technology, a high tech business journalism consultant and freelancer, and the past Senior Editor of TelecomWeb news break.