The landline is a dead parrot

The landline is a dead parrot

15 October 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Microsoft has quietly added voice calls to its Teams package. now, no one will need a fixed-line phone on their desk, writes Alan Burkitt-Gray

Sometimes, you just don’t understand the significance of an email that means you’re an early adopter. But a message months ago from the IT Service Desk at Euromoney, the company that owns Capacity, really did herald what’s turning out to be a revolution in the global voice calling business.

The email said that people going back into the office post-pandemic wouldn’t find any phones on their shared desks any more. This, the helpful IT guys added, was because now we could make calls from our Microsoft Teams account, whether we were at home, in the office, or even on the move via a Teams app on our mobile.

What, make phone calls via Teams, the handy app on our laptops we had been using for online office meetings since March 2020? And for doing video calls? Yes, that’s the one. Microsoft Teams. It’s now a phone line too.

 

End of voice calls?

We all went, well, OK, great, we’ll try it. But, to be honest, I had pretty much stopped making voice calls since we got booted out of the office. My last day was Friday 13 March 2020 – there’s still one of my jackets over the chair, and a tie, as like as not. Meanwhile, in my home office I have my mobile phone, and there’s a phone on the desk connected to the family fixed line. Do I need anything else?

Oh, wait, I also have Skype on my laptop, accessed via Chrome, and really quite a cool Skype address, ever since I signed up to the service after interviewing Niklas Zennström, one of the founders of Skype, back in the early 2000s. I have been paying Skype for a SkypeIn phone number, which looks like a London landline number, and for SkypeOut, allowing me to call phones worldwide, ever since they were introduced.

For the past decade Microsoft has owned Skype, after a fascinating corporate battle involving eBay, Zennström and others. Over the past few years Microsoft had an enterprise service, variously called Lync, Office Communicator and then Skype for Business, before deciding in 2017 that it would phase out Skype for Business in favour of Teams. Which was brilliant timing, as three years later we all turned to Teams in our millions as the pandemic started.

Meanwhile Skype has sat there as a largely unused icon at the top of my Chrome browser screen, right next to Webex, Blue Jeans and Zoom.

There was other stuff going on in the background too. Years ago, I had lunch in London Docklands with someone who was then a senior executive in Interoute, the Europe-wide carrier that got bought by GTT in 2018 for $2.3 billion and sold on, bundled with other valuable assets, to I Squared Capital this year for $2.15 billion: it has just rebranded as Exa Infrastructure, as you can read here.

 

Bypassing the voice network

This person was telling me of some work at Microsoft, essentially to bypass the global network for voice calls and deliver all calls as data, end to end, from the caller to the recipient, bypassing the phone company.

Meanwhile it has been almost a cliché that voice is becoming an app – a free app at that – in the portfolio of services on our mobile phones. It sounded outlandish when it was first bandied about, but, over the past year or so, it has become true. I am as likely to call someone via WhatsApp as make a regular mobile call.

The quality is usually better, too: fairly close to high-definition voice on WhatsApp most of the time, which happens only sometimes on standard phone calls.

(Do you remember when the mobile industry’s trade association, the GSMA, was going on about HD voice as being the killer app that would get us all back to making voice calls again? About the same time the same organisation was also saying that its home-grown messaging platform, RCS, or rich communications service, would replace SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger all in one go. They were wrong about that, too.)

 

Hello, Operator Connect

But let’s get back to Microsoft Teams, and what it is doing with what we now find is called Operator Connect. This was quietly released in March 2021 in a series of blogs on Microsoft’s Techcommunity site. No, I didn’t notice either. The preview started in May and went largely unnoticed too.

All went wild in late September and early October, when five carriers announced the availability of Operator Connect to their enterprise customers: AT&T, Colt, Liquid, NTT and Telstra. But if you dig further, you will find that BT, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Rogers, Swisscom, Tata, Telenor and Verizon are all part of the project, too. And probably others still to be named.

The project is largely just as that executive from Interoute told me over lunch in the London Docklands – in October 2006, according to my Outlook calendar. (No, I won’t tell you their name: I don’t reveal sources, even 15 years later.)

Microsoft is now essentially in charge of directing global voice calls for many of the world’s enterprises. Those who are using Outlook 365 and Teams can add voice calls to their package for a relatively low rate.

BT, for example, is quoting prices from £3.55 up to £8.50 a month, depending on the service chosen, including the option to make domestic and international calls. That includes up to 100 users who can be called free of charge. Such a long way from Buzby, the bird – not a parrot, but a bird all the same – used by BT’s predecessor in the 1970s to promote its landline services.

Yes, voice is just an app on a global digital network. Calls are made via Azure data centres, where also sit Microsoft 365 – from Outlook to Word, on which I’m writing this – and Teams itself.

Meanwhile, a couple of months ago I received some research from a company called Ringover, which has been analysing data from Ofcom, the UK regulator. In 2013 there were eight million landlines in UK workplaces. Now there 4.98 million, there will be fewer than two million in early 2024 and by November 2028 there will be none at all. Twenty years ago enterprise landlines provided the bulk of the income to BT and other large UK telcos.

I think Ringover is being a bit optimistic about 2028. A year and a half ago the business world switched almost overnight to ways of working we had long imagined but hardly dared to try. The landline? It’s a dead parrot, I tell you.