Numbers Game

T-Mobile’s Digits: the Phone Number Grows Up

The classic phone number is one of the last legacies of a bygone telecommunication era. As T-Mobile USA pointed out, phones are nothing like they were a decade ago, but the main telecommunication identifier hasn’t changed much during the past century.

Last week, T-Mobile USA introduced an enhanced identification service called Digits. The service will enable T-Mobile subscribers to spread their phone numbers across devices beyond the core smartphone. According to the carrier, about 30 million Americans carry multiple devices and this is clear justification for launching such a service.

With Digits, users can simultaneously receive voice calls and messages on tablets, PCs, wearables and smartphones. For example, users could answer calls to their T-Mobile number on their tablets and then switch over to other devices such as a smartwatch. Furthermore, because the service is software-based, one device can also be used as a terminal for several phone numbers. Essentially, any smartphone becomes tantamount to a multi-SIM device. This feature enables customers to combine work, home and personal numbers on a single smartphone, including those from a rival network.

T-Mobile sees Digits as an opportunity for businesses to create a mobile-only workforce that avoids the potential for missed calls and can improve employee productivity. It’s interesting to hear the carrier discuss this opportunity as the enterprise market isn’t an area in which it has focussed.

The Digits software can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store and Google Play, although the service is still in beta mode — a full commercial launch is slated for early 2017. T-Mobile said it has worked with Samsung to preinstall the software on the Galaxy Note5 and all Galaxy S6 and S7 models. The carrier didn’t mention additional fees for the service.

T-Mobile says it’s time to move the phone number into the 21st century. “If it can connect to the Internet, it can have your digits”, the carrier said in a YouTube ad for the service. It also says it has used the standardized IP Multimedia Subsystem with its own proprietary technologies to get the architecture working for carrier-grade calling across devices.

Although the introduction of Digits is welcome, it highlights the usability gap between wireless operators and Internet-based communications providers. With the new service, T-Mobile is impersonating over-the-top services offered by companies such as Facebook, Google and Skype. The underlying technologies are different, but the destination is the same.

T-Mobile stressed that Digits’ carrier-grade calling is based on a circuit-switched architecture rather than simply working as lower-priority data packages. It’s a distinguishing feature, although voice calling now lives alongside so many means of communications.

The younger generation of users has grown accustomed to calling and messaging chosen screen names instead of randomly assigned strings of digits, and is pulling the telecom market into the Internet’s gravitational force. T-Mobile indicated that rolling out the service as a beta version gives it the halo of a Silicon Valley start-up rather than a large, legacy telecom player. Digits could shake up the industry by altering the perception of the phone number as the main form of subscriber identification.

However, we note that the concept of using one number across multiple devices isn’t entirely new. In October 2015, AT&T announced a service, called NumberSync, which also enables customers to share a single mobile number across other compatible devices for voice calls and SMS. And Apple also offers a similar service with FaceTime and iMessage, albeit just within its own devices. Nevertheless, we believe the main differentiator for T-Mobile’s Digits is that this the first time users can have multiple numbers on one device and one number for multiple devices. T-Mobile USA has been altering the US wireless business environment for the past several years. As a market challenger, it can afford to risk rolling out experimental services.