When you need to protect what’s yours, just call a flight attendant

Of all the things to get arrested for, making a phone call probably wouldn’t be high on the list. 

But that’s exactly the reason why there was a welcome committee of port authority policemen waiting for Talmon Marco, co-founder of the VoIP and free texting app Viber (which is similar to Skype) at the end of his Delta flight this month. 

The reason that he was being detained was that he had (not surprisingly, considering the company he’s CEO of), used VoIP calls during the flight, which according to the Delta flight attendant was “banned by the FAA”. 

“At some point a flight attendant shows up and says I cannot make phone calls on the plane. I explained my cell was off and this was Viber. She said VoIP is also not allowed and I can only text. Claiming it’s an FAA rule. I told her there is no such rule so she decided I was getting difficult.”   [Talmon Marco, Viber CEO] 

Marco was right about the FAA – its website confirms that there is no federal rule against VoIP apps on planes. Marco’s use of VoIP was simply a GoGo “terms of service” violation (GoGo being Delta’s communication carrier partner). 

So why would an airline company and its communication carrier partner ban VoIP? 

1.    People talking over phones on the plane disrupt other passengers – OK, I agree with that, but if that’s the case, why do airlines now provide phones with an over-charged, (expensive) in-flight call service? By the way, GigaOm’s Om Malik has just reported Virgin Atlantic’s intention to offer a WiFi service powered by Aeromobile. 

2.     The communication carriers don’t want to overload their bandwidth. Actually, Viber apparently consumes much less bandwidth than YouTube videos, navigation maps, and music streaming, all of which you’re allowed to access on your flight. One consumer tested Last FM and found it used an incredible 600 Mb in an hour. Another tested Spotify and he’d used around 200MB during a six hour trip (which is still a huge amount).  tested.com’s Ryan Whitwam found that a one-minute YouTube video could consume several megabytes and Google Music used 10-12MB in the first few minutes alone. But if you’re really interested in calculating VoIP consumption, you can always do what I did when I investigated Draw Something’s hidden drain on data consumption, and download the VoIP Calculator. 

Anyway, regardless as to whether you view what happened as either protecting or restricting airline inflight communications service, there’s a parallel here with the serious problem that communication service providers are facing from new over-the-top (OTT) players who are cannibalizing their core business. Skype, Viber and WhatsApp are just a few examples of how service providers are losing voice, SMS & MSS revenues to OTT players. 

Consumers are also affected because since OTT players generally support only parts of the customer experience, they don’t have access to all the critical customer information they need to accurately personalize the experience: 

“We’re losing sight of who the customer is. We’re losing that precious intelligence about customer behaviors that has always been the hallmark of the telecom-to-customer relationship.” [Steve Cotton, Head of Revenue Management, TM Forum industry association] 

Steve Cotton

On the other hand, your service provider has access to your network data, customer data and product data, giving them the full picture of who you are. And if they leverage this information correctly, they can therefore offer you what no OTT player can – a more personalized, optimal experience that, according to Cotton in a recent interview with BillingWorld’s Dan Baker, service providers “can take to the bank”: 

“Within the constraints of privacy laws, you can pull together a great deal of knowledge about what over-the-top customers are doing. And what’s unique to telecom service providers is that view is across all the over-the-top providers.” [Steve Cotton] 

And if service providers can’t beat their OTT players, they can always join them through cooperation.  Service providers can leverage their network policy capabilities for example, to guarantee to deliver enhanced video streaming for partners such as Netflix whose streaming service would be worthless if it couldn’t offer a certain level of quality of service. 

Service providers don’t have flight attendants to help fight their battles – but they don’t need to. They have the right weapons/assets at their disposal to do it themselves.



  1. Posted May 24, 2012 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    With the recent acquisition of Skype we could probably see it progressing in that direction already?

  2. Posted May 24, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    @Gautam, Comcast’s announcement last week is helping us to discover why Microsoft wanted to acquire Skype last year.

    Comcast announced that it’s going to launch a new additional premium service for $10 which will allow you to use Skype on your tv (via your set-top box) so you can conduct HD video calls from your living room. It’s another example of how traditional service providers are starting to cooperate with OTT players.

    You can read more about it here: http://www.telecomtv.com/comspace_newsDetail.aspx?n=48748&id=e9381817-0593-417a-8639-c4c53e2a2a10&utm_campaign=Tweet210512WhereisMicro&utm_medium=web&utm_source=Twitter

  3. Ofir Kaidar-Heafetz
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    When Google or Facebook ‘know who you are’ it means that they can make money via personalized commercials. The advertising companies gets better exposure to the target groups and even the customers benefit by seeing commercials that might interest them and be relevant to their needs.
    What is the benefit when service providers ‘know who you are’? Ideally, I would envision my carrier calling me with a unique offer that has been tailored just for me, based on how many minutes I talked, how many text messages I sent and how much data I consumed and where. Knowing that no other carrier can offer me such a package that really match my needs they can ensure my satisfaction and loyalty.
    Unfortunately, the trend seems to me to be offering 2 or 3 tiers of packages (mainly one limited and one unlimited) with add ons that are up to me to choose, and this comes from my carrier who should literally know better than that.

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