Voice Goes Flat Rate, Too

We talk about flat-rate data plans all the time, but on Tuesday, three US operators announced flat-rate voice plans. For about $100 a month, subs on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile can now get unlimited national calls, and T-Mobile will throw in unlimited SMS and MMS to boot. Sprint had announced trials of a flat-rate plan earlier this month, while MVNO Helio has offered its “all-in” plan (which includes unlimited data) for a while.

The price, at two times or so ARPU, will keep this a niche offering for the time being, but it’s hard not to see the price falling and flat-rate voice calling becoming the norm in the US, especially given the proliferation of cheap all-inclusive fixed-line VoIP plans as well as unlimited local plans from operators like Cricket and Metro PCS.

The way the announcement of these plans went down — with three of the country’s biggest operators putting them out on the same day — says a lot about the commodity status of voice service in the US, as well as the level of competition in the market. When voice service carries a fixed, flat cost that’s essentially the same across the market, how will operators differentiate? Network quality remains one area, but that will eventually move to parity as well. Access to data and content services looks like a more likely space as operators look to draw in users with new apps and services and reduce churn of their existing ones. Operators’ existing models for delivering content and services move slowly and, in general, do little to create customer loyalty or draw in new users. If operators are happy to become so-called dumb pipes for voice, will data be any different?

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