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Amazon and Google may bring back home phones


When was the last time you actually talked to someone on a home phone? It’s no secret that landline phone service is on the way out — a recent survey found over half of American households had ditched their home phones — but home-based phone service might not be dead just yet.

If a report from the Wall Street Journal holds any weight, home telecommunication is just evolving. After a series of comments from anonymous Amazon and Google sources, it looks like the companies are making moves to offer their smart home speaker hubs, Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, as phone line replacements.

The shift to phone service via smart assistant makes sense. Both systems are based on vocal interactions with AI systems — so why shouldn’t they be able to host conversations with a real person over the internet? WSJ‘s sources claim Amazon has been developing a phone feature for the Echo since 2015, while Google already has an online telecommunication platform, Google Voice, which could possibly be integrated into the Home device.

With those systems already in development, the sources report both Google and Amazon could launch phone service on their devices by the end of the year. That said, the rollout is stalled until some logistical problems are addressed.

First order of business: addressing consumer anxiety about their calls being recorded. Both the Echo and Home record audio interactions already — but adding the extra wrinkle of personal conversations to the mix could make consumers extra leery of Big Brother listening in.

To quell fears, the sources claim Amazon’s service would only collect the metadata from each call, not the actual conversations. Google’s privacy solution wasn’t as clear, but if it runs on the Google Voice protocol, it would only record the metadata as well, along with SMS messages, voicemails and user-recorded calls.

The Echo and Home would probably use voice over internet protocol tech (VoIP), the internet calling  system used by Skype and Vonage, which sources say could be roped in to bring their services directly to smart home hubs.

Google and Amazon are also reportedly looking to solve issues that could come with the digital assistants’ keywords in conversation — just imagine how complicated it could get on a phone call to a friend named Alexa — and how exactly ending calls and managing contact lists will be handled.

On a more serious note, how to possibly integrate emergency calling and 911 service presents another roadblock. Having a voice-based assistant that can act as a phone could be extremely helpful in an emergency, but most online telephony services don’t allow 911 calls.

Giving law enforcement access to the lines for wiretapping is an issue, too — a warrant for audio information from an Amazon Echo was already part of a contentious investigation last year, and Amazon refused to turn over records to authorities. With real-time communications involved and established federal laws in place for existing telephone systems, it’s a messy issue that needs a deft hand to solve.

When these hurdles are cleared, there’s little doubt that Google and Amazon will be eager to roll out the home calling systems as yet another reason to bring their smart assistants into your home. Before you get too excited about using your Echo to talk to someone other than Alexa, it’s important to keep in mind that all these details are still unconfirmed — Amazon reps wouldn’t comment on our requests for clarification on the story, and Google is yet to respond.

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