In a move likely to further disrupt the voice services market, Facebook recently announced that it will offer free calls via Wi-Fi for users of its Messenger app on Apple devices in the United States. The Messenger calling feature, tested in Canadian markets earlier this month, allows users to “call” their Facebook friends who have installed the Messenger app and linked their mobile number with Facebook by clicking their contact information. While data charges will still apply for Messenger calls made over a wireless carrier’s 4G or 3G network, there will be no separate charge for calls made over a device connected to the Internet via a Wi-Fi connection. Facebook’s announcement marks another example of the growing trend of using mobile apps to end-run traditional public switched telephone network (“PSTN”)-based voice services.
While Messenger will allow users of Apple’s mobile operating system to call Facebook friends, calls to landlines or devices using non-Apple operating systems are not currently available. The Messenger app can be used to make calls not only on the iPhone, but any device running Apple’s mobile operating system, such as the iPad tablet. Consumers with Messenger already installed on their Apple device will not need to update the app to access the new calling feature, which was automatically downloaded to existing users. Facebook has not indicated when the Messenger calling feature will be available in other countries or for non-Apple operating systems.
Industry observers praised the new Messenger features as critical for consumers with poor wireless network coverage or who want to conserve cell phone minutes and costs. However, Facebook may face opposition from the wireless industry, which may view the Messenger app as an unfair competitive threat. If the wireless industry attempts to block the Messenger app, it could result in an interesting test of the “no blocking” provisions of the FCC’s Open Internet Order (i.e., net neutrality), which generally prohibit mobile wireless providers from blocking lawful applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony services. In addition, if the Messenger app begins to offer the capability to make calls to and receive calls from the PSTN, it would be subject to the same regulatory requirements applicable to PSTN-interconnected VoIP service.
Depending on the traction Facebook Messenger gets, the service has the potential to further disrupt markets for traditional landline voice services, which are already facing pressure from the wireless industry and interconnected VoIP providers.