The beta version of the software, created by the same guys who developed the outlaw file-sharing service Kazaa, launched in late August, 2003. Just like Kazaa, Skype was a disruptive rebel – it sought to use the power of the internet to greatly lower the cost of something that people had typically been paying through the teeth for: long-distance calls.
It became immensely popular, incredibly fast, so much so that phone companies – both landline and wireless – started to sweat. All that lucrative long-distance revenue was vanishing faster than music industry sales. The difference was that, unlike sharing music files over Kazaa, millions of Skype users weren’t necessarily violating copyright. Skype was a perfectly legitimate alternative to phone companies. You can’t copyright voice conversations and then steal them, after all.
It’s amazing how much wireless companies in particular fought the inevitable tide. AT&T in particular pressured Apple to prevent developers from designing apps that allowed calls to be made over a wireless network, which ultimately hobbled Skype into being a wi-fi-only product on iPhones. Apple didn’t change the rules until 2010, after U.S. anti-trust authorities started sniffing around.
Incredibly, this is still an issue in some parts of the world. Skype is actually at the centre of a net neutrality debate currently taking place in Europe, where an estimated 236 million phone users can’t use the service properly because their wireless providers are blocking or degrading it. Meanwhile, in North America, we almost take it for granted.
The big question that consumers here might want to ask their regulators is why, when they generally have an established right to enjoy Skype over their chosen wireless provider’s network, are they still required to pay for a voice service?
If consumers can use Skype or any other similar app to make calls over a data network, does it make sense for them to also have to pony up for a second voice service? It’s a lot like forcing people who subscribe to home broadband to also pay for a landline.
Here in Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last week announced that it is looking into wireless carriers’ roaming rates. While it’s at it, the regulator should probably look into what looks like a clear case of tied selling. There are many wireless customers out there who would very much like to simply buy a data plan for their smartphone, without having the extra expense of an unwanted voice plan. They should have that option.
ADDENDUM: As a reader points out, it may be possible to buy a tablet SIM card and data plan and then pop that into a phone to get data only. It’s a bit of a workaround that I’ve never tried, but it’s still not an option for the vast majority of people who are in contracts. Mandatory voice plans are evidently acting as subsidies on contracted phones.