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With iOS 10, Apple has made the phone carrier less necessary than ever

Apple doesn't like carriers. It tolerates them because it has to, but year after year the company has committed to reducing the prevalence of the network providers in the its plans for the iPhone.

For the first few years, Apple wasn't a semiconductor company, so it used minimally-changed components from Samsung and Qualcomm. Then, in 2010, it introduced the custom-designed A4; three years later, it introduced the world's first 64-bit mobile processor, the A7, a product so ahead of its time that Qualcomm pushed up its own plans for a 64-bit solution for Android users, with disastrous results.

For Apple, carriers continue to be a necessary evil.

Though Apple has managed to reduce its reliance on outside parties in the production, distribution and maintenance of the iPhone, without building its own infrastructure in every country in which it sells, working with the carriers continue to be a necessary evil.

WhatsApp call in iOS 10

But disruption comes in waves, and with a relatively unsung feature of iOS 10, Apple has once again loosened the proverbial rope. Starting this fall (opens in new tab), apps that offer voice calls using myriad Voice Over IP (VoIP) protocols, from Skype to WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Viber, Tango and many others, will be treated the same, from an operating system perspective, as a FaceTime Audio call or, more importantly, a regular voice call. That means an incoming call from WhatsApp, an increasingly crucial source of low-cost voice communication for people in developing countries, will appear, in full, on the lock screen. Such calls will be logged in the Phone app, with small annotations to suggest they weren't made using traditional means. And perhaps most importantly, people will be able to specify third-party VoIP apps for Favorite callers — so if I prefer to dial my overseas friend using WhatsApp, but my wife using FaceTime Audio, I can do so.

The degree to which the iOS user experience has been untethered from its often-derided default apps is unprecedented in the nine years since the iPhone's release. While APIs for Siri, Maps, and iMessage are no less impressive and essential to the longterm health of iOS as a platform, being able to reduce people's reliance on often-expensive and unnecessary voice components of wireless plans empowers its billion-plus user base, and emboldens customers to pursue lower-cost network solutions.

Let's use Canada as an example. Today, anyone who wants a data plan to use with an iPhone must buy a bundle of wireless minutes as well, which usually come with legacy options like call display and voicemail. But fewer people are making calls in the traditional fashion, and with the proliferation of free IP-based voice calls, many of which are merely checkboxes in an ever-growing feature set of messaging ecosystems, they are an untenable cost burden. With iOS 10, it becomes considerably more feasible to switch to a data-only plan, similar to what is offered for Wi-Fi + Cellular iPads, and transition almost completely to messengers like Skype, WhatsApp and other ubiquitous cross-platform services, for both calls and texts.

With iOS 10, it becomes considerably more feasible to switch to a data-only plan.

Moreover, it allows smaller MVNOs in many countries to offer completely app-based subscription services for phone service, while using a SIM card to resell data from larger providers. This is already a huge business in many parts of Europe, and is increasingly common in the U.S. On iOS 10, a service like Project Fi, which Google has rolled out to its more recent Nexus products, would technically be possible on the iPhone, as it would be able to offer a native app for incoming calls and text messages while maintaining its data reselling opportunity with T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular.

Similarly, with the ubiquity of Wi-Fi, some people may be tempted to ditch the SIM card altogether, siphoning their calls, texts and video messages through the many cross-platform apps that no longer rely on the traditional calling model.

Such a move has been a long time coming. Apple was one of the first phone manufacturers to support Voice over LTE and Wi-Fi Calling, two core tenets of next-generation telephony. But both services still largely rely on carrier-specific provisioning, and sit on top of a customer's regular voice bundle. iOS 10 all but makes them a condition of context: WhatsApp doesn't care if someone is connected using LTE or Wi-Fi, since it routes both through the same VoIP protocol, and cycles seamlessly between.

The argument can certainly be made that Android has had these capabilities for years, and it hasn't set the MVNO world on fire. This is true, but the difference between the average Android handset and the iPhone on iOS 10 is focus: Android owners still can't initiate WhatsApp calls from the native dialler, and Google has spent little time incentivizing such integrations. Android's loose tie-ins have engendered a swath of popular messaging apps with their own takes on the outgoing call; iOS 10 makes plain the promise of loosening ties with legacy network voice services.

As with Apple's eSIM, which sowed further carrier discord with its integration in the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, expanded VoIP capabilities in iOS 10 will be slow to effect actual change. But the next time I go up for a plan renewal, I'll feel much more confident that by going data-only I'll still be able to have an iPhone call experience equivalent to, or better, than what I have today — for half the cost.

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Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.

48 Comments
  • Well played Apple, well played.
  • Very interesting...
  • Well in Morocco they just banned voip solution (yes moroccan operators are stupid) unless you use a vpn connection which ecerybody should use then. May be apple should build one within the os one day Sent from the iMore App
  • VPN is already built into the OS
  • The ability to use your own VPN connection is built into the OS. I think he means an Apple supplied connection
  • If using a VOIP app and service, does this only work if both parties are using the same app? Or, just as an example, could I use a VOIP app to call someone on their home landline?
  • On Skype you can add money to your acct to make calls to landlines and traditional cell phone calls.
  • Phone carriers are the ones that supply 4G/LTE connectivity, so they are not any less necessary, we are just migrating from a voice oriented world to a data oriented one.
  • My thoughts exactly. Your phone is still just as useless without a carrier network. Relying on public wifi isn't a viable workaround either. Sent from the iMore App
  • Ha! I rely off of public wifi and I'm just fine. Then again I live in a small town where every business has free wifi, so as long as I'm on Main Street I'm just fine.
  • You don't have to have a LTE connection to stay constantly connected. My ISP provides hot spots throughout my town i am never disconnected from wifi
  • Never? What about on the way to those hotspots? How about when you're out of town?
  • I don't know where do you live, but from my worldwide experience that's not the case in most of the cases..... Wifi coverage is spotty at best
  • While I love this advancement in iOS, I don't think "it becomes considerably more feasible to switch to a data-only plan." There are too many people and services in the world that require an actual phone number. You can't tell a bank, hey call me on Facebook Messenger. Many of these services hook up to your phone number, but I just don't think we are any where close to that future yet. It'll be a few years. Unless companies start giving you a phone number with the data plan that someone can still call. But then they will just up the prices of data plans again to compensate for the loss of messaging and minute rates.
  • Just switch to a data-only plan and then get a landline again. #backwardsprogress
  • You read my mind!
  • Those data-only plans have phone numbers associated with them, just to connect to the mobile network. I can't say for sure if that would be a feasible number to use for those services you use as an example, though.
  • Carriers would have to enable VOIP only calls. Software would have to be made for it to work. Doesn't exist for phones right now afaik. But yes you are right. We are headed down that path, just not there yet.
  • most of these services have the ability to convert so you would give out what looks like a traditional phone line number when it is in fact a voip solution it would be seemless to the end user.
  • With VoLTE on many major carriers now many cellular calls are already data but they are billed as minutes used. I'm on T-Mobile's $30 plan with 100 mins and 5GB data so it really only affects the few plans that don't offer unlimited minutes. I just use my Google Hangouts/GV number (which you can tell whoever to call) for long calls. Works great and I look forward to the interface being made a first class citizen like a legacy phone call in iOS. It's easy to miss a Hangouts call if on vibrate, for example.
  • I use Fongo. It's an app that gives me a local number and people can call from there regular phone. Nobody can tell any difference. I get a voice mail as well so if I'm out of wifi range people can still leave a message to call them back when I'm back in a zone. I can phone most cities without any difficulty
  • Get a Google Voice number. Works perfectly.
  • Google Voice/Hangouts and Skype both offer traditional telephone numbers. Assuming, like a previous poster, that I could have Wi-Fi everywhere I went via my ISP, I could ditch my carrier data/voice plan and use my Google Voice number with a my iPad as my phone. I'm not interested in that --and I'd go the other way first -- but I could. T-Mobile also assigns phone numbers to my data-only devices on my plan. I can text from the Messages app on my Android tablet (but not from iMessage, which is an Apple choice, not a carrier one). Too bad neither it, nor my iPad have dialers. Data-only plans are the future. Voice plans are archaic, an idea held over from the days of long-distance carriers that won't be missed in any way. If I have unlimited mobile calling and texting, other than the fact that they want to charge more for it and cap my data, what's the difference between that and a purely data-only plan? I'm with T-Mobile and I can dial over Wi-Fi anyway, so if they want to still give you a number that you can use with data-only, they sure can. The only difference is that they priviledge "regular" voice calling over VOIP. But functionally, how are they different? Aside from them probably making more money not doing this, why not figure out a charge for a "main" data line and go from there? People are using FaceTime and Skype and Hangouts now (among many others) with Duo coming online soon. And again, T-Mobile routes regular calls over Wi-Fi, so you can still have a regular telephone number from them, if you choose. I think Sprint will these days, too. And my older relatives have no problem reaching me through Google Voice, since it rings my phone (and my iPad). Since I have an iPad and not an iPhone, I do hope the call-answering functionality makes it into the iPad. But since there's no dialer now and I can't send SMS through iMessage like iPhones can, I'm going to temper my hopes some.
  • Your idea is going down the right path but I think there are a few corrections that might be needed (I may be wrong), but the Google Voice number can call from the number as a caller ID but the service has to call another phone first. So you ultimately have to have another number. It is kinda like a replacement 'hide my real number' kinda number. The VOIP solution isn't here yet because the networks aren't there. we are just getting HD voice on certain carriers where it is more ubiquitous but not in all areas. HD Voice is VOIP. But it uses your "minutes" (archaic I know!). I think it is interesting that they use the data to call but call it minutes like it is tolling. Not sure I understand the complete logic there but there IS a valid set of reasons.
  • When I signed up, I told Google initially the number to use to route calls, my cell number. As the service went on, whichever phones the app was installed on could receive the calls through GV. But when they kinda "merged" Hangouts and GV, I could send and receive calls on my Wi-Fi only iPad 2. Hangouts itself would display the call information for incoming calls kinda the way Apple plans to display various VoIP call data in iOS 10. So in the past, you needed to have a cell number to route calls to, but these days, all you need is Hangouts, whether the target device has a number (or SIM) or not. You're right about the HD Voice or VOLTE or whatever each of the carriers is calling it. It is so strange that even as they're moving into these newer technologies, they're tolling it as "voice" instead of straight data. I saw earlier that ATT just enabled Wi-Fi dialing on some number of phones. Seriously, if you're dialing over your own Wi-Fi, we're not talking about the phone radio transmitting a voice signal to a tower, but IP packets routed over the Internet to their data centers in some way. And they're tolling for "minutes" and not data. I don't understand the logic, either.
  • They're going to minimize carriers into what they think they should be. It's pull production as opposed to push. Very exciting.
  • The carriers themselves are implementing voice over their data networks.
  • The way we use our phones is going to change how carriers just price their existing services. I don't see AT&T saying "yeah come get an unlimited data plan at $30-50 a month" they'll just up how much it costs (like above posters said). However, it is forcing them to rethink their business altogether and for that I'm excited. Although I kept my grandfathered unlimited they brought it back because they were losing to competitors that still provided them and understood that their customer base used data way more than actual calling. It's interning role reversal so play in Apple/Google, we're here for it! ✊ Sent from the iMore App
  • There's lots of voip offerings that will give you a "real" phone number - so you are using voip, and the person on the other end has no idea. As far as they know you are calling from a phone. If you love your cell phone number for some reason you could probably port it to your voip plan. If the voip app on your phone can be as easy to use as the phone app on the phone then it is completely reasonable to switch to a data only sim. I don't think anybody at any of the carriers who sees the implications of this will be happy.
  • What are those services that you mention and are they decent. I'd like to try one out. VOIP needs to be the standard fast. VOIP calls (i.e. FB Messenger, FT audio, Carrier HD calling, etc) sound phenomenal!
  • The one I know is Vonage. I was a happy Vonage customer for years. I don't have any experience with their app though.
  • I can't speak for the rest off the world but in the UK with Three, I get unlimited calls, texts and data plus 12gb tethering for £20 and my allowance can be used abroad in a number fo countries for free. So whilst VOIP would be call I personally don't have a use for it at the minute
  • While interesting I think there are a few things that will prevent a smaller reliance on carriers, people themselves. Humans are creatures of habit and change is like a HUGE deal. It doesn't matter if the change is for the better it's change. The idea of not using a carrier will seem too weird to people. So until the younger generation start using capabilities that allow less or no carrier usage. The older generation will not want to change. The other problem is reliance on the carrier's subsidy for a cheaper priced phone. I've bought my phones for full price for years now. This enabled me this year to buy a mobile hotspot and put my iPhone on the cheapest most basic phone plan. The hotspot provides wifi to all my devices for the same cost of what I was paying for my iPhone only data plan. How many people would do that? Very few because of the initial cost of the devices. Although over time it works out to be cheaper or provide more benefit. Sent from the iMore App
  • When traveling, I sometimes find that the wi-fi at a motel is, shall we say, inadequate, and that the cellular connection is much better. When that happens, I can open my hotspot and use my wi-fi tablet just fine. Eats data plan, or course.
  • What we need next is for Governments, Banks, and all other businesses to stop requiring us to have telephone numbers and physical mailing addresses.
  • Anyone who thinks I am going to go for a wi-fi only phone that can't make a call without a wi-fi connection doesn't have much brain power. I travel, and I am not in range of a wi-fi connection most of that time. The phone would be quite useless for me, should I have a breakdown, accident, or medical emergency. NOT AN OPTION!
    I suppose for those who spend their entire lives tethered to a concrete jungle, never leaving the city from birth to death, this might work. NOT where I live, for sure. I can drive for 15 minutes and be out of cellular range, and I live in a city!
  • I think the carriers will always be necessary until phones no longer require a sim card. Sent from the iMore App
  • Phones don't require a sim card. Take the sim card out and it's essentially a more powerful iPod Touch. You can still connect to WiFi
  • I really looking forward to untether from carriers... That would help to mitigate their prices
  • Carriers have been overcharging customers for years. It's about time we will finally have a chance to reduce our dependance on them.
  • Can't see Apple completely move away from the carriers. Sent from the iMore App
  • "As with Apple's eSIM, which sowed further carrier discord with its integration in the 9.7-inch iPad Pro" I wonder if that's why none of the Canadian carriers have the 9.7-inch iPad Pro after 3 months?
  • By this logic, apple should put the phone app in ipads and ipod touches.
    Make the apple watch work with ipads too.
  • Never say never !!
  • Perhaps apple could do something similar to fios with att and T-Mobile cspire
    , ???
  • GREAT!
  • Daniel
    I just caught up with your solid piece today, more than two weeks late. It seems to me there are implications for the iPod touch. Remember that relic of on-device music players? When iOS 10 launches in the fall the iPod Touch 6 will become by far the least expensive full-featured mobile telephone device offered by Apple worldwide. It will be the least expensive to buy, by far, and the cheapest to operate. In sum, a joy to parents everywhere and a boon to the third world. The release of iOS 10 will bring with it a lockscreen ringer for third party phone apps on the Touch. Likely candidates are Skype and, in Canada, Fongo. Either of these allow users to get a cellular phone number of their own, making the Touch accessible to calls from landlines or any cellular phone. Skype charges for the number. On Fongo it is free, but available only in Canada. Similar services are, or will be, available just about everywhere. These services provide features like voicemail for missed calls, fax reception, etc. Just like the big boys, but generally free or far lower-cost. As to making calls, I am aware of a number of phone providers already working to ensure integration with Siri. On the Touch it will be possible to press for Siri and say 'call my mom using (Skype, Fongo, Magic Jack in USA, whatever) and have the call dial through: again, just like a big-boy phone. Will there be an iPod Touch Renaissance with iOS 10 and phone integration? I guess that depends on how many people recognize what is possible, and what value they attach. A 16GB Touch sets you back $199 US. The cheapest iPhone with the same storage capacity and similar though better specs is an SE, weighing in at $399. No monthly charges with the Touch, because it is cellular-free, unless you piggy-back on someone else's, and that's free cellular. Otherwise, free WiFi is the ticket to ride. And Wi-Fi in the third world is more ubiquitous than cellular.
  • On my Android phone (LG G2), I have Google Voice (not talking about Hangouts here) app installed. Using the _default_ dialer, I can dial a number and then I am prompted to call using GV or not GV. I _can_ make GV default and never get that dialog again (I don't because choice is good).
    So, at least in regards to GV, this has been in Android for quite some time and, like you say, it really hasn't set the MVNO world on fire.