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Can Texting Give New Life to Landlines?

Jason Meyers
7/1/2014
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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
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jasonmeyers,
User Rank: Blogger
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
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
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
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jasonmeyers,
User Rank: Blogger
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
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
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
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jasonmeyers,
User Rank: Blogger
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
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nasimson,
User Rank: Light Sabre
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
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
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.
Kelseyklev
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Kelseyklev,
User Rank: Light Beer
7/1/2014 | 12:00:57 PM
Re: SMS SOS
That's simply not true. The cost of texting in other countries is the main reason WhatsApp just sold for billions.
johnlauer
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johnlauer,
User Rank: Lightning
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.
Kelseyklev
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Kelseyklev,
User Rank: Light Beer
7/1/2014 | 11:57:30 AM
Re: SMS SOS
Not if it's advertised by the business that you can call or text the number. At that point, the customer knows that their text will be answered. It would be a different story if the customer just texted in randomly. 

 
iapplega
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iapplega,
User Rank: Light Beer
7/3/2014 | 12:34:09 PM
Re: SMS SOS
My understanding is that the text message is answered by a human being in real time. It isnt an automated service. 
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/3/2014 | 1:01:40 PM
Re: SMS SOS
That would mean that Ms. Small-Business Person would hire someone full-time to ... answer the text?
iapplega
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iapplega,
User Rank: Light Beer
7/3/2014 | 1:06:25 PM
Re: SMS SOS
Well I guess full-time if you take 20 minutes to compose a 160 character reply
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/3/2014 | 2:48:21 PM
Re: SMS SOS
I'm sorry -- but "real time" means someone is on hand to answer a message as soon as it comes in. It has absolutely nothing to do with how long it takes to respond. Does real time mean something different to you?
johnlauer
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johnlauer,
User Rank: Lightning
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?
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
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?
johnlauer
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johnlauer,
User Rank: Lightning
7/1/2014 | 11:11:59 AM
Re: SMS SOS
I think the amount of landlines will increase, but the definition of a landline will change in your mind from being a copper circuit to a cloud service.

Everyone seems to agree that phone numbers will move to the cloud. Frontier just partially moved the phone number to the cloud because this new texting service is cloud-based. Once phone numbers are in the cloud, the more relevant question then is "will the phone number remain relevant in the cloud?"

To answer that, ask yourself "would you rather dial an email address or a .com domain name or a Facebook ID?" I think that unique identifiers are roughly all the same. None of them are perfect. Phone numbers will stick around for quite a long time. The entire iPhone revolution has changed the game, yet every iPhone has a phone number.

So, are phone numbers going anywhere?
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/1/2014 | 11:14:43 AM
Re: SMS SOS
But there's an unsubtle difference between landlines and phone numbers.
johnlauer
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johnlauer,
User Rank: Lightning
7/1/2014 | 11:19:15 AM
Re: SMS SOS
Well, Google Voice uses landlines to enable its service. Republic Wireless, operated by Bandwidth, uses landlines. 8x8 is a cloud telephony service that went public recently and they use landlines. RingCentral is also a cloud telephony company that went public and they use landlines. Vonage is a VOIP provider who uses landlines. Are these companies selling landlines? Or selling phone numbers? Or selling communication services that everyone wants regardless of the underlying infrastructure?
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/1/2014 | 11:25:17 AM
Re: SMS SOS
Maybe this should be the basis of a flash poll -- Where will the landline business be five years from now?
brookseven
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brookseven,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/1/2014 | 2:54:00 PM
Re: SMS SOS
Dennis,

Maybe 2 questions....Residential and Commerical.  Nobody uses 8x8 or RingCentral for home service.  How much longer there will be wireline business systems is a good question.  On the residential side, it will be generational.

seven

 
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/1/2014 | 3:34:26 PM
Re: SMS SOS
Agreed. Wireline will be around for a few decades, but the idea that it will be rejuvenated by something like texting is more than a stretch.
WDudley
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WDudley,
User Rank: Lightning
7/1/2014 | 1:50:28 PM
Re: SMS SOS
Excellent overview of this new service. 

Enabling "landlines" (or non-text-enabled phone numbers) for texting is a good thing.  Whether or not it remains "SMS" enabled or simply "messaging" enabled is not the point, but the point is that people can text to the number and someone on the other side will read it and potentially respond.

That's good for business, especially those with vanity numbers (either toll-free or non-toll-free).  There's brand equity in those numbers and if by text enabling them, they offer new ways in which their customers can reach them.

Even for long-time residential numbers, the ability to text-enable them offers new incentives to the users to keep them -- maybe as a household number where members of the household can use to text.

Texting as a medium is still evolving -- whether it's SMS based or cloud-based. Consumers really shouldn't have to try to differentiate.  Phone numbers, as identifiers or "addresses", are not going away any time soon; neither is texting.  So expanding the universe of addresses available as texting destinations is a good thing.

I for one, look forward to a time when I can call or text virtually any phone number.
Kelseyklev
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Kelseyklev,
User Rank: Light Beer
7/1/2014 | 11:55:19 AM
Makes sense, suprised it isn't already availalbe
This makes sense. Why not be able to call or text any number? It doesn't matter whether or not the total number of landlines is declining, because most businesses I know of have a number and they're not going to get rid of it. The interface looks pretty simple too. 
Gabriel Brown
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Gabriel Brown,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/1/2014 | 12:19:02 PM
Re: Makes sense, suprised it isn't already availalbe
People occasionally text our landline number at home by mistake. The phone service then rings up and reads out what it thinks the text says in a computer voice. If we don't answer, it leaves voicemail. The problem is that it is nearly always non-sensical and, obviously, we can't text back.

Anyway, SMS is out-moded on mobile now. It's all about "cloud messaging" over IP which works across devices and networks.
Kelseyklev
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Kelseyklev,
User Rank: Light Beer
7/1/2014 | 4:10:06 PM
Re: Makes sense, suprised it isn't already availalbe
I respectfully disagree Gabriel. Text messaging numbers are still rising, especially if you consider that the averge consumer considers iMessages basic old text messaging, which I think they do. Most iPhone users don't know iMessages are going through IP. They just consider it texting in a traditional sense.

As mentioned in the article, this service is indeed cloud, available across devices.
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
7/1/2014 | 4:31:02 PM
Personal experience
I have personal experience to bring to bear on this discussion: Our favorite local pizza place, which we discovered a year or so ago, takes text message orders. 

At first I thought that was great, because I hate phoning in take-out or delivery orders, particularly because we tend to offer off-menu, which makes things complicated. 

In practice what I found is that my text would go unanswered. I didn't want to be That Guy so I'd wait ... and wait ... and wait ... and eventually call and the guy who answered the phone would say, oh, right, sorry, the calls were coming in so fast we weren't watching the incoming texts. 

This happened about half the time. 

Finally, the guy answering the phone said, look, it's really better if you just call the order in. Texting doesn't really work. 

This in spite of the fact that the pizza place advertises prominently that it accepts orders by text. 

The lesson for Light Reading readers' customers: It's not enough to have the technology to do business using text messages. Companies also need to have business processes in place to acknowledge and respond to text messages. 
R Clark
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R Clark,
User Rank: Blogger
7/2/2014 | 9:26:50 AM
Re: Personal experience
Yeah, ordering pizza by text only makes sense if it goes straight into the pizza parlour's ordering system. 

Both texting and wireline are declining operator services, so I hope Frontier knows this is what its customers want.
wanlord
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wanlord,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/2/2014 | 2:20:02 PM
Re: Personal experience
Found a leaked pic of the beta device:

 

mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/2/2014 | 2:24:56 PM
Re: Personal experience
Kewl! I hope there's a version that works with a princess phone handset.
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
7/3/2014 | 1:29:06 PM
Re: Personal experience
wanlord - That is awesome. 
Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
7/3/2014 | 1:28:41 PM
Re: Personal experience
R Clark - "Both texting and wireline are declining operator services, so I hope Frontier knows this is what its customers want."

Frontier could just see it as a short-term opportunity -- a way to get additional revenue from technology that's on the way out. 
brookseven
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brookseven,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/3/2014 | 2:31:22 PM
Re: Personal experience
Mitch/RClark,

If you read the article, you will see that all that has happened is that an existing service from Ziphwhip has been enabled for all Frontier phone numbers.

You don't actually get a text on your landline phone (I was wondering how they had modified On Hook Transmission to do that).  What happens is that this online texting service with a specific app now accepts texts for your Landline Phone number.  You still need a smart device (smartphone, tablet, or PC) to send/receive the texts.

If I were thinking about this as a service, I would say it is targeted at businesses who are still using Landline phones and want to enable texting for some reason.  There is an API to send and receive texts, so it would seem automation based on this would be possible.  Potentially even integration with text to email services.

seven

 
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