The carriers’ voice gravy train is over

Kevin Tofel - GigaOM; Ilja Laurs - Founder and CEO, GetJar; Hjalmar Winbladh - Founder, Rebtel at Mobilize 2011Voice is in the process of transitioning from providing the bulk of phone companies’ revenues and profits, to becoming just another part of a data service that can be provided by web players, explained execs from voice-focused startups Rebtel and GetJar at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in San Francisco on Monday. As this shift happens, web players like Facebook, Skype/Microsoft (s MSFT) and Google (s GOOG), and smaller startups, will begin to disrupt the phone companies’ voice and text gravy trains.

It’s a shift that has been happening for years, and was accelerated by the launch of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android platform. Voice over IP (VoIP) companies began eating away at carrier’s revenues since the early and mid-2000’s. Rebtel, a five-year-old mobile VoIP company that enables users to talk for free via the web, has been profitable since 2010 and has a $75 million revenue run rate, said Rebtel founder Hjalmar Winbladh.

Still, carriers continue to be very reliant on voice for their businesses. Winbladh said that voice and text messaging currently provide 85 percent of revenues and 95 percent of profits for carriers. The carriers all over the world have been able to maintain their voice revenues partly through a combination of government policy and the ecosystem of monopolies, said Winbladh.

Add to that ecosystem potentially some unsavory practices. Winbladh said that two carriers in Germany had blocked Rebtel’s service in their markets, and one did so after it purchased a competitor to Rebtel. It’s an “interesting business model. . .I’m not sure it’s legal, to be honest,” said Winbladh.

But while carriers can try to slam small companies, they’ll have a harder time brushing off the web giants like Facebook, Google and Microsoft. These companies will be the next-generation of voice players said Ilja Laurs, founder and CEO of mobile application company GetJar. In addition, these web players will be able to provide web innovation and the communications services that consumers want.

Voice applications from the phone companies have been “too limited,” and consumers are looking for voice to be able to be integrated with communications and social networks like Facebook, said Laurs, adding “Facebook is the ultimate communications service.” As voice shifts to the web it will become “an add-on service,” or yet another API that is added to a data service, said Laurs, for example, adding voice to social gaming. Voice is being disaggregated across the web, and the carriers better get used to it.