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When Will Ad Sponsored Communications Services Take Off?

June 22, 2015

Over the years, there have been a number of proposals for ad-sponsored communications services.  Get free phone calls or Internet for the price of having to listen to or see a brief ad before you can go do your business.  The problem has been trying to make an ad model work when contrasted with existing "Free" services without ads, freemium-style services, and simple for-pay services. 

The first concept for ad-sponsored communications emerged with Voice over IP (VoIP) driving down the cost per minute for voice calls.  People would be able to get free long distance phone calls by listening to a short ad, then the call would be placed to connect the caller with his other party.   FreePhone2phone (, currently listed as beta on its website despite being in operation since 2011,  is an example of how such a service works -- dial an access number into the network, followed by the destination phone number, listen to a 10 second ad, and the call goes through.  Calls are limited to 10 minutes on the first call, five minutes on the second one.

In a world of free over-the-top (OTT) voice services ranging from Facebook to Skype with Apple FaceTime thrown in for good measure, who wants to listen to ads? It's also a hard sell because users have to dial a separate access number before they get their free phone call -- a step that was tolerable when people used calling cards and call back services to cut phone bills in half.  But now there's free.

Via Shutterstock

But the same freebie experience in many an OTT service means you are going to see a banner ad at the bottom of the session.  For instance, Skype will display the occasional ad if you aren't <ahem-ahem> buying any Skype credits or have a monthly subscription.  While Facebook Messenger doesn't display ads that I've noticed, I get the usual set of sometimes relevant, sometimes not ads when I log into Facebook to see what's going on with my friends and colleagues.  One could argue that for some value of free, Skype and Facebook are indeed successful ad-sponsored communications services, with Google joining in some aspects.

Ads also go out the window when people simply pay a flat fee per month to make unlimited calls, cutting out the time it take to listen to an ad before the call is placed and any third-party. Skype, Vonage, Ooma and numerous other VoIP services are not exactly "too cheap to meter," but are at such low cost and simple to use that people are glad to pay a little extra for the extras.

"Free" Wi-Fi broadband at some major airports might be the best example of functioning ad-sponsored communications services.  Access to the "free" Wi-Fi typically requires a brief web page or video ad -- if memory serves, most are short video ads -- before you are connected into the local network.  Other place simply splash a web page with ads or sponsor logos before you are allowed into the network.

The bottom line is that "free" communications services aren't really free, but subsidized --- typically via advertising (Hello Google!) or as a convenience to customers (Starbucks) -- or operated as a "freemium" service, with an expectation most users will pay a little extra to get key features. 

With the low cost of voice and video delivered through WebRTC measured in fractions of a penny per API use, it's hard to see how an ad-sponsored communication service can simply be an ad sponsored communications service.  Creators are going to have to roll in more value for users and advertisers to make ad-sponsored communications work than simply "Listen to the ad, here's your free phone/video call."

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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