3 Pushes the Envelope Once Again: Offers Obligation-Free Skype Mobile Services

Hutchison-Whampoa’s 3 service in the UK has been the pioneer in offering Skype access and other data-based services, such as SlingPlayer, at low cost. For as little as £10 per month, one could have almost unlimited Skype calling and text messaging on the Skypephone and other selected mobile smartphones. Already 3 has said they are delivering over 1.5 million minutes of Skype-to-Skype calling per day. However, earlier this week 3 announced they were pushing the envelope for free Skype calling even further.

Effective May 1, 3 subscribers will be able to purchase a special 3G SIM card which will allow the user to download Skype software and start making calls to Skype users worldwide with no minimum monthly payment obligations. Come summer 2009, 3 will expand the availability of this offer; from the same press release:

During the summer, 3 will expand its offer making it possible for anyone with a compatible unlocked 3G handset in the UK, to take advantage of free Skype calls, whether or not their phone is from 3. Anyone that wants to talk on a mobile for free will be able to use a Skype-enabled 3 SIM to make and receive totally free Skype-to-Skype calls and to use Skype’s instant messaging (IM).

Basic cost of the SIM will be £1.99; revenue will be generated via associated pay-as-you-go or 3’s other mobile phone services contract offerings. In addition new subscribers will have to purchase one of the supported phones, such as a Skypephone 2 (or, later this year, a new Skypephone 3 which is speculated to have a QWERTY keyboard).

According to 3’s website, their focus from the beginning has been to provide services built around their purpose-built data network using the HSDPA protocol. And, of course, any VoIP-based service requires a high speed data network. However, questions remain:

  • What will be the impact on handset battery life? This has been a major factor hindering the provisioning of VoIP over 3G networks.
  • Will this service be available to 3’s UK customers when they are roaming in other 3 countries, such as Austria, Denmark, Italy, Sweden and Ireland?
  • Which smartphones will be able to take advantage of the expanded offer coming in the summer? Does this mean i can bring my BlackBerry to the UK, buy the 3 SIM, and have free Skype-to-Skype calling while in the UK (or even other 3 countries) and using 3’s service for other calling, messaging, email and browsing requirements?

A hint of 3’s business reasoning is given further down the press release where they provide some information on existing services:

3 UK has found that regular Skype users:

  • Are less likely to churn than non-Skype users
  • Use more traditional voice minutes than non-Skype users in addition to calling their Skype contacts
  • Use Skype IM, but also send more SMS than non-Skype users
  • Are more likely to browse the internet on their mobile
  • Are higher margin customers
  • Are twice as likely to access social networking sites as non-Skype customers

In addition, with the support of SkypeOut calling from 3’s various Skype-enabled phones, one can expect that 3 will share with Skype revenues resulting from SkypeOut minutes generated by this change in services.

3 is also lobbying within the EU for reduced termination charges and “fair pricing for roaming”. In practice they are really pointing out, very pragmatically, that a wireless carrier can generate significant customer recruitment levels, satisfactory revenues and improved ARPU when adopting Skype support with properly structured services.

Which raises a cost advantage of 3’s obligation-free Skype-to-Skype calls and chat messaging: there are no termination charges involved. Skype’s secure peer-to-peer technology has essentially eliminated the need for termination charges along with the associated business development, call record tracking and billing infrastructure costs.

At last fall’s Mobilize 08 Conference organized by GigaOm, 3’s Frank Meehan, Director & GM, 3G Handset and Application Group, stated (hat tip to Om for the reminder):

The Skype phone makes us more margin than any other phone in pre-paid with the exception of the iPhone. About 65 percent of the UK market is prepaid and only 5 percent of those are using data. Smartphones are not as relevant. We also have a massive churn in prepaid in all markets where prepaid exists. So we basically told people, if you spend 10 pounds a month and top it off every month, you get Skype for free. That’s driven incredible loyalty to the device. We have a huge level of top-offs and we’re seeing growth on voice and text on those devices.

3 is certainly providing wireless carrier leadership in the adoption of Skype as a mobile accessible service, demonstrating that there is a business model for the wireless carrier that not only drives subscriber recruitment but also can generate increased ARPU (and revenues) while lowering the overhead costs associated with supporting international calling. Would it be fair to also say that it has the potential to drive down international roaming charges?

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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