One has to be careful about comparing trends in any market where there are participants highly disparate in size, assets, products and customer segments, just as one has to be careful when comparing nations on economic, social or other measures, when those nations vary dramatically in size, income, population.

In the U.S. communications market, one has to be careful about assuming that what makes sense for a tier-one supplier such as AT&T or Verizon makes sense for a small rural telco, a competitive local exchange carrier or a cable or satellite company. So it is interesting that some smaller mobile service providers have decided to give their customers easy access to third-party voice mail services.

Viaero Wireless, which serves rural Colorado and Nebraska, is preloading YouMail’s visual voice mail application into all of its Android phones. One might argue that the decision, by a smaller operator that sees higher-performing over the top alternatives, makes sense in a scenario where scarce resources need to be targeted elsewhere, and where in-house voice mail does not offer important strategic advantages.

YouMail CEO Alex Quilici said Viaero isn’t the first operator to see the value in an independent visual voice mail provider. Pennsylvania’s Immix Wireless has been using You Mail since 2008. Should mobile operators give up on voicemail?

The obvious larger question is whether a similar outsourcing approach, for voice mail or other features, makes sense for other smaller providers. As a practical matter, the tier-one service providers might not gain strategic advantage at all by managing their own voice mail services. It is just an attribute of service that customers expect, a price of being in the game; table stakes. But neither does providing that feature in-house cause any undue financial pressure.
That often is not the case for a smaller service provider, where the cost-per-customer for virtually any feature is going to be substantially higher than the same feature, provided the same way, by a large service provider.
Of course, the issue for Viaero is visual voice mail, not the legacy dial-in voice message services traditionally offered in conjunction with fixed line or mobile service. With third-party visual voice mail apps relatively easily available, the business challenges are obvious enough.
It isn’t immediately clear whether consumers will pay for visual voice mail, when supplied as part of their service subscription, when other alternatives exist. If not, adding visual voice mail might cost service providers money they would not be able to recoup.
So the issue might not be “should service providers get out of the voice mail business,” but rather “are the costs of adding visual voice mail worth it?” Generally speaking, service providers large and small have tended to act as though the answer is “no.”

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