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Web tech helps Telefonica and O2 move calling beyond the phone

European carrier giant Telefonica, parent company of the UK's O2, has embraced WebRTC technology so its customers just need a browser to make calls. Too bad about Apple's Safari, though.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

Telefonica's Tu Go service enables voice calling and text messaging over the Internet. With WebRTC, it now works in browsers, too.
Telefonica's Tu Go service enables voice calling and text messaging over the Internet. With WebRTC, it now works in browsers, too. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Telefonica, a carrier that sells mobile network service access in several countries -- including the UK under the O2 brand -- has embraced Web technology to give customers new ways to make phone calls.

Through the use of a technology called WebRTC, customers now can place and receive calls through their browsers using the company's Tu Go software, the company said Thursday. Previously, Tu Go was only available through an app running on Google's Android mobile operating system or Apple's iOS rival. The service is available now to O2 customers in the UK and in Argentina through Movistar, and it will reach Peru, Mexico and Brazil soon, the company said.

Telefonica announced the move ahead of the Mobile World Congress show, which begins March 1 in the company's home country of Spain. The move underscores the gradually blurring lines between telephony and the Internet. In past years, voice calls on the Internet were unusual and carriers resented software like Skype that enabled people to bypass traditional phone networks. Now, even the carriers are getting on board.

The software gives customers new flexibility. For example, a person could answer a call on a PC even if their phone was lost or left at home. And when traveling in foreign countries, customers can communicate using a hotel Internet connection to avoid expensive roaming fees on a smartphone network. In the future, it also opens new possibilities for Telefonica services, like video chat a la Apple Facetime, Microsoft Skype or Google Hangouts.

"By putting Tu Go directly into the browser we are simplifying cross-device connectivity even further for our customers, helping them to stay connected regardless of where they are or what they are doing," said Jorge Serna Pozuelo, Telefonica's director of Tu Go products, in a statement.

WebRTC lets browsers set up real-time audio and video chats.
WebRTC lets browsers set up real-time audio and video chats. WebRTC.org

Using the WebRTC standard means that customers can point their browsers at the go.tu.com website and log in with their phone number. No plug-ins or software installation is required.

But the service only works with Firefox, Chrome and Opera browsers, because Microsoft's Internet Explorer's WebRTC support is a work in progress and Apple's Safari doesn't support it.

"We'd love to see more companies support WebRTC and obviously Apple would be a fantastic addition," Telefonica said in a statement. "In the meantime our focus is on building exciting new WebRTC services for people on platforms that already support the technology."

Telefonica's WebRTC support came through its 2012 acquisition of TokBox. TokBox's software is also used to power Firefox Hello, a browser-based video and audio chat service that works when one person sets up a chat and sends the other person a Web address to join.