THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE PHONE NUMBER
March 2021

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Gregg Knowles

By Gregg Knowles

  |  

30 March 2021

Should we mourn the decline and fall of the phone number?

The way we make calls is evolving rapidly, with implications for how companies monitor and control business communications, says Gregg Knowles, Technology Director at plan.com

In recent years we have witnessed a rapid evolution in the way both business and personal calls and communications are made. Making phone calls in the “traditional” way is becoming rarer, and as that happens, the phone number is becoming increasingly obsolete as far as most callers are concerned - with significant implications for businesses.

For years, since the advent of mobile phones and smartphones in particular, we’ve been able to tap on a name in our contacts list to reach someone we know or click on a weblink when calling a company, rather than picking up a handset and punching in a number. More recently, apps such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram have started to take over as a preferred means of making “phone calls” for many people, particularly the younger generation. These web-based services do not ring a number or use a phone network at all – the phone number merely serves as a unique identifier to sign a user into the system.

And in the last year especially, accelerated by Covid-19, “calling” (whether audio or video) via services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have gained momentum – for which your email address, not your mobile number, is now the unique identifier required for a connection.

The upshot is that mobile phones today have essentially become interfaces for connecting to data, rather than for making calls. Even where people are still making “traditional” phone calls on their mobiles, most network operators are now moving to “VoLTE (Voice over Long-Term Evolution) services, a high-speed wireless communication standard where calls require a 4G data connection.

So, if the phone call, in its original conception, is all but dead, where does that leave the phone number? The idea of phone numbers as being key for communication may remain in public consciousness for some time to come yet, but in reality, they could soon be used only for the most formal business purposes. For instance, for sending and receiving text alerts for security purposes when dealing with customers, such as to provide multi-factor authentication.

Security: benefits and risks

Ironically, while the phone number may become principally a security tool, its demise (and that of traditional phone calling) could also create risks around monitoring and control if staff start using app-based channels that have not officially been sanctioned by the company to communicate for work purposes. For example, whereas monitoring and recording phone calls to customers (which is vital for regulated industries like financial services) used to be quite straightforward, doing so on services like WhatsApp and Facetime is virtually impossible.

What’s more, the minute a customer’s details are mentioned on a channel over which the business (in any sector) does not have oversight and control, privacy issues and data security breaches could arise. It is therefore vital for businesses to have access to services that enable them to block certain apps being installed by employees on work mobiles, shutting down what’s known as “shadow IT”, and to be able to see detailed breakdowns of what staff are using data for.

Digital transformation has many benefits, but when it comes to the proliferation of ways in which we can connect today, businesses need to stay ahead of the game, with appropriate policies and tech tools in place to regulate how staff communicate. Few people will necessarily think about – let alone mourn – the decline and fall of the phone number, but we should take a moment to recognise its inevitable passing and think about what that means.


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