Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly feature, Analyst Angle. We’ve collected a group of the industry’s leading analysts to give their views on hot topics across the wireless industry.
Personal identity is an intriguing issue philosophy – I spent countless hours in university debating whether or not you are still yourself if you forget everything about your past, or your brain is moved to another body, or somebody else’s brain is transplanted to your body. I would not have thought that I would much later encounter the same topic in wireless telecom. Or while walking in Barcelona, Spain, at the recent Mobile World Congress event.
Even though substantially more mundane in scope, personal identity is becoming a relevant concept in the telecom space. In the beginning, phones and phone numbers were attached to a location, such as an office or home. With the advent of wireless communications, the first mobile phones were “car phones” – tied to the vehicle, not to the user. As mobile phones became truly portable, they became intrinsically associated with the individual user. Just think how odd it is when you call a mobile number and someone other than the owner picks up the call.
For a long time the mobile phone and user association was a pretty straightforward one: one phone, one user. With number portability and more frequent handset replacement, it was the phone number that became associated with the user, who had become a subscriber. New phone, but same phone number, and same subscriber. If I wanted to reach you, the phone number was both necessary and sufficient.
In the mobile data world, this clean link of personal identity to the phone or the phone number is disappearing, and it is being replaced by a fragmented self, split among devices, e-mail and social sites accounts, applications, IP and MAC addresses, and – yes – phone numbers. Indeed it is increasingly common to have more than one phone number, thanks to inexpensive prepaid SIM cards or services like Google Voice or Skype.
I experienced this shift this a few weeks ago during MWC, when I moved my usual SIM to a phone that I no longer use, and put my Spanish prepaid SIM in my current phone. The idea was to carry two phones and check both, since hardly anybody had my Spanish number. Yet most of the time I ended up ignoring the old phone. I would sometime hear the phone ring, but then forget to check messages or voice mail for hours, often until I started to wonder why I had not yet heard from someone I expected to call or text. I have used prepaid SIMs many times before, but I never had this experience. My personal identity was now tied to the phone, and only secondarily to the phone number. And more precisely, not the phone itself, but the applications I run on it.
As the channels we use to keep in touch with others multiply, and increasingly our identity resides in the cloud and becomes distributed across the devices we use, we are becoming less dependent on specific channels. If I ignore a voicemail, I can reasonably expect that the person trying to reach me will send me an e-mail. At the same time, we are more reliant on the connectivity that gives us access to these channels. This is the long-awaited dream of an IP world where I can be on the phone or on the tablet, using a U.S. or Spanish SIM card or a Wi-Fi hotspot, and nobody knows the difference. It is still me.
Does this matter? After all, isn’t this the reason why we pay for mobile data – to have access to the applications we are used to in the wired world and to the new ones that mobility enables? Subscribers have finally gained the freedom to which they have aspired throughout the agony of the walled-garden years, and do not appear to have any difficulty with their more scattered IDs.
For operators however this is an alarming change. First they discovered that the device (i.e., the iPhone) can be much more important to subscribers than the operator providing connectivity – or the quality of the service. Then over-the-top applications started to challenge their ability to monetize the services they provide. Now in a further move OTT applications are weakening mobile operators’ ties to the subscribers, which were traditionally mediated by the phone number. Paradoxically, at a time when mobile broadband is becoming an integral part of our life, we are becoming less dependent on the providers of the service.
Monica Paolini, PhD, is the founder and president of Senza Fili Consulting and can be contacted at [email protected] Senza Fili Consulting provides expert advisory services on wireless data technologies and services.