Unified communication

Can Texting Give New Life to Landlines?

Frontier Communications has equipped all of the landline phone numbers across its territory -- which includes primarily rural portions of 27 US states -- to be able to receive and send text messages via an app that works on laptops, desktops, smartphones, and tablets.

The obvious question is whether it's too little, too late for the anachronistic landline in an increasingly mobile world.

Both Frontier Communications Corp. (NYSE: FTR) and Zipwhip , which developed the service, argue that it's not -- chiefly because of the popularity of mobility and consumers' propensity to communicate via text. Existing landline and toll-free numbers are part of the identity of businesses, they say, and adding the ability to send and receive text messages makes them more valuable for functions such as taking orders, scheduling appointments and communicating with customers.

"The value of the landline is still very high, especially for businesses," says Rod Imbriani, vice president of product for Frontier. "They're advertising that landline number, and it's still very prominent. This is an extension of that number for the way their customers want to communicate."

Businesses don't have to buy any new hardware or change anything about the configuration of their phone systems to use Frontier's service -- they just sign up and download the Zipwhip app to send and reply to messages from any connected device. Messages are routed through the Zipwhip cloud and pushed to the device.

The service is priced as an add-on to business voice and data bundles: an additional $4.99 per month for 250 texts, and $19.99 per month for unlimited texting. There is also an enterprise-level package for $99.99 per month that adds features such as unlimited autoreply, group texting and scheduled texting.

To enable the service, Zipwhip entered all of Frontier's landline numbers into the routing tables of the core short messaging service (SMS) infrastructure in the US, so that every wireless operator now has Frontier's numbers in its database, says John Lauer, CEO of Zipwhip -- a step that, he says, revealed consumers' eagerness to use text messaging.

"In leading up to this launch we had to turn up all the Frontier numbers for text capability," Lauer says. "Since then we've seen thousands of texts going into black holes because people were already trying to text the landlines, even before the service was available."

John Arkontaky, research analyst for The Nemertes Research Group Inc. , says the ability to text could indeed give some new legs to landlines, especially for a service provider with Frontier's landline-heavy service portfolio.

"It is an interesting thing for the times. It's not inaccurate that things are shifting to mobile, but in the meantime a lot of companies have complex phone systems already hooked up," he says. "Within Frontier's kind of structure, I do think it could give landline some life and offer some cost-effectiveness, especially for customer service types of situations."

Another mobile industry observer is not so bullish.

"This is a cool technology chasing a dying market," says Bob Egan, CEO of the Sepharim Group, a mobile industry research and consulting firm. "The number of landlines continues to collapse, even in the business area, as more and more people are using wireless."

— Jason Meyers, Utility Communications Editor, Light Reading

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jasonmeyers 7/1/2014 | 9:11:27 AM
SMS SOS The Frontier deployment is a good start for landline texting, but the true test will be if the service is deployed by larger providers that aren't as wireline-centric. Verizon mentioned Zipwhip in a recent blog post about the evolution of text messaging, so clearly that carrier has an interest in the platform. Time will tell if the types of businesses Frontier and Zipwhip mentioned -- hair salons, taxi dispatchers, pet kennels and even larger businesses -- are able to provide better customer service and decide to hold on to their landline numbers because of a service like this. 


mendyk 7/1/2014 | 9:41:35 AM
Re: SMS SOS The value of the "landline" is the promise (or illusion) that the phone eventually will be answered by a human being in real time. This is especially the case for customer interactions. Texting to a landline seems, well, weird and pointless.
jasonmeyers 7/1/2014 | 9:44:26 AM
Re: SMS SOS Even if it's just to make or change an appointment, place an order or reserve a cab? I guess the question is if it will make things more convenient for customers -- and if those customers really care what kind of number they're texting. 
mendyk 7/1/2014 | 9:52:48 AM
Re: SMS SOS It just seems like an odd retrofit -- a solution to a problem that really doesn't exist. Many businesses want to keep their landlines going for their 20th century customers (or just use a mobile number and answer the phone). I guess there may be some that see spending another $20 a month for the ability to do texting on a desk phone is worth it, but it's hard to imagine who those people are.
jasonmeyers 7/1/2014 | 10:02:33 AM
Re: SMS SOS I agree that "landline texting" is an odd concept. I think the businesses that see the value of the extra $20 a month will be ones that believe it will be more convenenient on both sides -- appealing to their customers that might only want to text (like the kids today) and more streamlined for parts of their customer service efforts. Maybe it's the small business equivalent to the telco truck roll -- if they can take an order or answer a question with a quick text, it saves them some time and resources.

One example Zipwhip used is that of a law or accounting office with two or three associates texting from their desktops with clients to answer questions, kind of like a mini call center. Plus the desktop texting app allows them to keep records and track their time.

nasimson 7/1/2014 | 10:17:08 AM
Re: SMS SOS @mendyk: While there are arguments both ways, it will be relevant to see the outcome of such initiatives in other parts of the world. Or is this first of its kind in the world? I for one, would like to text the UK and toll free numbers as I only remember those of the businesses I deal with.
mendyk 7/1/2014 | 10:20:25 AM
Re: SMS SOS Most other parts of the world are defaulting to mobile, where texting is typically available at little or no additional cost.
johnlauer 7/1/2014 | 10:46:58 AM
Re: SMS SOS There are 200 million landline and toll free numbers in the U.S. compared to 330 million mobile phones. Texting is now more popular than voice calls yet those 200 million landlines can't communicate over texting until now. So, although I think some folks think it's an odd fit, is it? The smartphone changed the definition of a phone number to mean voice and texting. Shouldn't the other half of the market--landlines--follow suit?
johnlauer 7/1/2014 | 10:58:07 AM
Re: SMS SOS @jasonmeyers We have seen use cases emerge that would make anyone a believer that landline texting is the new normal. We've seen chiropractor offices change their entire workflow where they text customers to arrange appointments. They've gone from 100% calls / 0% texts to 10% calls / 90% texts. We've seen insurange agents closing policy deals 100% over texting. Not a single phone call. We've seen other use cases like an alcohol distributor switching to 100% texting to all their field reps whereas prior they only had a choice to do voice calls. The use cases are so broad it's hard to predict them all.
mendyk 7/1/2014 | 11:03:05 AM
Re: SMS SOS Do you think the number of landlines will increase with texting? Will the number of lines stay the same, or will it continue to decrease?
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