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Apple, Google Voice, and number portability

Is Apple blocking Google Voice to help the carriers beat number portability? Phone numbers need to be abstracted from carrier services for continued innovation.

There's quite a bit of finger pointing about why Apple banned the Google Voice application from the iPhone store. And now that the FCC is officially investigating we can be assured it will end up in a legal morass.

In trying to figure out what exactly is at the heart of the problem (don't say Apple's "control issues"), I heard an interesting perspective on this brouhaha from Todd Barr, vice president of marketing at, a nationwide CLEC voice carrier that sells voice and data services to businesses. (Note: Fellow CNET blogger Matt Asay provides a good overview of the company's FreePBX product here.)

Barr believes that what this controversy boils down to is number portability. Increasingly, our phone numbers (especially mobile numbers) have become our identity, and the FCC enacted the number portability act some time ago to make sure that businesses and consumers can take their number with them when they switch carriers. The FCC believes this is important because number portability ensures competition among providers and allows businesses and consumers to keep their number to ensure continuity of their identity.

At the time, the FCC contemplated carrier competition - but now, Barr described, there are these "meta" carriers, like Apple, that have a key control point in the telecom ecosystem: the phone user experience. "Just like users want to control their number and identity, they also will increasingly want to control their own telephony experience - like having one number, that can ring to any phone you specify, and even display the correct called-ID number when you call from any phone. Ultimately, I think the crux of the issues is how far the idea of number portability extends to the entire user telephony experience, not just the phone number."

This will be an increasingly important issue to carriers as they experiment with fixed-mobile convergence features that let business users control their call flows in more intuitive ways, such as sharing one number and common features across wireless and fixed networks.

It will also become very important for services like Google voice that abstract the number from the carrier and make the networks dumb pipes.

For users to ultimately be in control of their telephony experience and to encourage the next wave of telephony innovation, the concept of portability will need to extend beyond just numbers to the telephony user experience.

Follow me on Twitter @daveofdoom