Is Tencent’s WeChat going to replace regular phone calls? That’s a question that’s been on the minds of nervous Chinese telecom executives since the service first started offering its walkie-talkie feature. But the rumblings of discontent from telecoms have grown even louder since news broke that Tencent is working on bluetooth devices that will allow WeChat users to use this feature to talk with friends with their phones still in their pockets.
That sounds an awful lot like a regular phone call, and of course, with WeChat users won’t have to pay for their talk time anywhere they have wifi access. Tencent, for its part, has denied that it’s trying to offer “free phone calls” and emphasized that it is not trying to compete with telecoms. But whatever you want to call it, WeChat already offers a way for users to chat using their voices without paying, and soon it looks like Tencent will be selling bluetooth gear that makes chatting via WeChat even more convenient. It’s not hard to understand why telecom executives are upset.
But you know what? Things are not going to get better. WeChat is going to replace phone calls; or at least, VoIP technology in general is. As data networks get faster, stabler, and more widespread, the need for a totally separate system for voice calls diminishes. Sooner than you think, it will vanish altogether.
So here’s the bad news for telecom executives: phone calling is dying, and you cannot save it. The good news? You also own and operate the networks that are replacing it. China’s big telecoms obviously control the country’s mobile data networks, but they also control the vast majority of its broadband infrastructure. The problem they are facing is not WeChat, it’s their own business model being outpaced by technological development. The solution is not eliminating or somehow restricting WeChat, it’s re-structuring their own businesses to adapt to the new reality, which is that people will be using more data and fewer phone minutes and text messages as time goes on.
I suppose it’s natural that there will be a lot of fuss about the death of the old model, but the sooner telecoms can come to terms with this reality and begin adapting to it, the better off everyone will be, because it will mean that Tencent and every other app developer is free to use VoIP however they’d like in their apps, without having to worry about incurring the wrath of the state-owned telecom megacorporations.