WhatsApp is to offer free voice calls to its 450 million users as the free text message service, fresh from its $19bn (pounds 11.4bn) acquisition by Facebook, increases the pressure on mobile phone networks.
Days after the firm was taken over in Facebook's biggest ever takeover, the founder and chief executive of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, announced that it was planning to add voice calling to the WhatsApp messaging app. It will appear on the iPhone and handsets using Google's Android system in the second quarter of the year, with BlackBerry and Windows Phone to be updated later.
"I grew up in Russia. We had a telephone line, but a load of our neighbours didn't. It became a shared resource for the whole apartment complex. People would come and knock on the door and ask to call their family in another city," said Koum at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona. "We're adding voice to WhatsApp so people can stay in touch with friends and loved ones no matter where they are in the world."
Koum said there were no changes planned for the company after the Facebook deal, and WhatsApp would be allowed to operate as a standalone company, maintaining its startup mentality with 55 employees. Staying nimble and flexible was of paramount importance for survival in a changing industry, he said.
WhatsApp and competitors such as South Korea's KakaoTalk, China's WeChat and Israel's Viber, have punched a hole in telecom operators' revenues in recent years by offering a free alternative to SMS text messaging. The news that the most powerful of them was adding voice calls to its service will be seen as worrying for telecom operators globally. They earned about $120bn from texts last year, according to market researcher Ovum.
WhatsApp's decision to add free calls threatens another plank of telecom operators' revenues, albeit one that has been declining in recent years as carriers alter tariffs to focus on data instead of calls.
Since the advent of Microsoft-owned Skype a decade ago and the rise of Google, telecom bosses have been assailed by challengers whose services piggyback on their networks. This has led to complaints from telecoms groups, heard again in Barcelona yesterday, that internet companies are not subject to the same national regulations.
Mats Granryd, the CEO of Swedish mobile operator Tele2, said he was happy to work as a partner with the likes of WhatsApp, because of the additional data traffic they generate, but shared the concerns of other network operators that they must live under often strict national regulatory regimes while internet firms were free to do as they pleased.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, was expected to meet the heads of several top mobile operators in Barcelona, including Vodafone's chief executive Vittorio Colao.
Asked for his reaction to the Facebook deal with WhatsApp, Colao said that he did not understand how such an important acquisition among internet players could go unchallenged at a time when European network operators were facing intense scrutiny from their competition regulators.
"These types of deal are a clear indication that the world is changing and the regulations don't fit anymore," said Colao. Jo Lunder, who heads Russian mobile network operator VimpelCom, said: "They (internet firms) need to be regulated a little bit more and we need to be regulated a little bit less."
However, Zuckerberg and Koum have cast themselves as partners to telecoms network operators, not just competitors.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's 29-year-old billionaire creator, at the opening of the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images