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BSNL’s VoIP service will cost Rs 1099. Can it compete with free alternatives?

State-owned telco Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) announced on Thursday that it is launching an online calling (VoIP) service called ‘Wings’. The service, which will be rolled out from August 1 on a first-come-first-serve basis, will let users make domestic and international calls using any internet connection including broadband, WiFi, 3G or 4G data network of any operator.

“To use the service, a customer needs to install… soft app on any of its smart devices (like laptop/smart mobile handset/tablet) having internet… to make and receive calls from anywhere in India and abroad with any party (landline/mobile),” BSNL said in a statement.

Wings is priced at a one-time activation fee of Rs 1,099, which includes free domestic calls for one year. While overseas calls will be priced as per international tariffs of BSNL landline, video calling is only supported between users who have access to Wings services, the telecom PSU said.

The move comes after the government recently amended norms to allow full-fledged internet telephony by telecom operators which will enable calls from app to app of licensed service providers as well as on phone numbers.  The mentioned amendment implements one of the recommendations that telecom regulator TRAI issued to the DoT in October last year.

Better alternatives, for free!

While BSNL emphasised that the service will be beneficial to customers in areas with erratic network supply, the fact remains that it will need some sort of internet connection to work. This leads to the question, why would a customer pay for Wings, when WiFi calling is just around the corner.

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WiFi calling — or VoWiFi (voice over WiFi) — will let mobile operators use any broadband connection to make calls to any phone number. Plain and simple. It doesn’t require people to have the same application — you can call any regular phone number over your WiFi connection without installing anything else. Many smartphones released in the last five years support WiFi calling. While Reliance Jio has already informed the Indian government that it will roll out WiFi calling soon, Airtel and Vodafone are expected to follow suit as well.

Read: WiFi calling is coming soon — what you need to know

Besides, VoIP service like Google Duo, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and scores of other such instant messenger applications allow users to make calls, including, video and international calls for free, something that the makers of Wings somehow also managed to ignore. Sure, these over the top applications cannot make calls to mobile numbers, like Wings or WiFi calling can. They also require people to have the same application. However, the user bases of these platforms are so incredibly vast that chances are most people use one or more of these free services. While it has to be conceded that there is a constituent of the population that does not use either of these platforms, the choice for them would be then, to either pay Rs 1,099 for Wings OR to download one of these platforms, for free.

Given the penetration and the slump in prices of high-speed mobile internet in India over the last two years, especially after the launch of Reliance Jio, one wonders if a market for paid VoIP services like Wings even exists.

Furthermore, the news comes on the same day when Reliance, at its AGM announced the launch of its home broadband offering, dubbed Jio GigaFiber. Set to launch in August, this service is widely expected to disrupt the broadband industry as Jio did the mobile industry. This service will be launched in over 1100 cities according to Reliance. Why would people pay for Wings instead of choosing a fast (and cheap) broadband connection like this or even a 4G connection, coupled with a free instant messenger or WiFi calling? It was also announced at the same event that the massively successful and extremely cheap JioPhone, which by the way of a software update, will support WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube, starting from August 15.

The announcement of Wings, falling on the same day as the announcements made by Reliance and the news of WiFi calling being launched soon, couldn’t have been planned worse. Not that it needed these, but, it just goes on to show just how pointless a service like Wings is in this time and age.

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