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Facebook Rolls Out Free Voice Calling to iPhone Users

By January 17, 2013IT Blog

Facebook rolled out free voice calling in the U.S. through the Facebook Messenger app for iPhone on Wednesday — with little fanfare or formality.

There was no grand announcement — media outlets noticed the new development and after inquiries, Facebook said it was an extension of the VoIP in Messenger test it launched earlier this year in Canada.

The feature works within the Facebook Messenger app on the iPhone. Users can place a call to contacts from the conversation list if that person has Messenger for iOS as well — not just the Facebook app. The call goes over data networks or WiFi, instead of the voice service the carrier provides.

A Cutting-Edge Move

It is a savvy move on Facebook’s part, Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, told MacNewsWorld.

“By doing this, Facebook is instantly allying itself with the cutting edge of the smartphone revolution — a revolution in which it needs to be more of an active participant, rather than just a destination to reach on the phone.”

The free part of the offering is bound to be attractive to users with unlimited data plans, Bruce White, professor of computer information systems at Quinnipiac University told MacNewsWorld. “What is especially appealing to this is that instead of using your voice minutes, it uses your unlimited data access”

Sometimes You Want to Hear a Voice

The offering also fills a hole in social-media communication that, for all its popularity, is still quite noticeable: sometimes people want to talk, not just hit “Like” or make clever comments about posts.

“Let’s look at a scenario,” White said. “You are on Facebook and one of your close friends has just posted that they are engaged. You can post “congratulations” to them on Facebook, but you really want to talk to them. So, with a click, you call them through this new service.”

Plus, he continued, it is faster than the alternative, which is reading the announcement, then pulling out the phone, finding the friend’s number and so on.

For Facebook, the app has the advantage of keeping users on the site that much longer, he added.

Facebook vs. the Carriers

In short, the move appears to be initial steps for a larger wireless play by Facebook. Carriers won’t likely be impacted in the short term but the long-term possibilities may cause them some sleepless nights, Andreas Scherer, managing partner at Salto Partners, told MacNewsWorld.

“If Facebook is able to deliver this capability on all major mobile platforms and allows its users at some point to call to any phone number — landline, mobile or otherwise — then the world largest social media platform could easily become the world largest wireless provider,” he said.

“Current carriers would be marginalized by simply delivering the bandwidth to enable a user experience that is created, enhanced and owned by Facebook,” according to Scherer.

The Drawbacks

That day — if it comes at all, though — is far off, at least based on what Facebook is currently offering. The new service has a number of limitations, starting with the fact that it is only available to iPhone users, Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, told MacNewsWorld. Also, to connect, both parties need to be using the Messenger app.

“The biggest hurdle, and why this won’t be a threat to mobile operators, is unlike Skype, if the person you want to reach isn’t online, there’s no outbound calling to a landline or mobile as there’s no interaction with the information on how to reach you from inside your Facebook profile.”

What this offers Facebook users is instant voice if the person is online and available, Abramson said. “This type of presence-based calling has been around for a very long time so I don’t see it as breakthrough.