If you listen to technology analysts, futurists, and network executives, you'll hear a common refrain: it won't be very long until every device in your life is connected to the internet. And not just connected with a Bluetooth tether to your already-connected phone or on a Wi-Fi network, but independently connected to the cellular networks that are all around us. But there's an inherent problem when you connect something to a cellular network: it's given its own phone number and identity, making it hard to use as an independent device from your phone. Nobody wants to give everyone they know a new phone number just to send messages from their watch.
AT&T thinks it has a solution to this problem with its NumberSync service, which is being announced today and will roll out to devices later this year. NumberSync lets connected devices on your account, such as a tablet or watch, use the same phone number as your main line for making and receiving calls and sending and receiving text messages. It's essentially spoofing your number at the network level, so when you send a text to your partner from your LTE-connected smartwatch, it doesn't come from a completely strange number, but from the same 10 digits you've always used.
AT&T wants all of your connected devices to use NumberSync
Jeff Bradley, senior vice president of device marketing and developer services at AT&T Mobility, says the company wants to enable this feature on "all of the devices that people could use for communication," though it will be starting out with wearables and tablets. Connected cars are something AT&T hopes to include with NumberSync down the road.
The new service runs on the RCS and IMS infrastructure AT&T built initially for VoLTE service. Since it's a network-level service, it can be made to work with any device or operating system, though device makers will need to work with AT&T to enable it. The goal is to make everything seamless for the user: use the native dialer and messaging app on your device and everything will just seem like it's coming from your phone. Bradley even says that message status will sync across devices, so if you read that text on your tablet, it won't show up as unread on your phone later on. (If you're hoping to be able to use this feature to have two phones linked to the same number, as one unnamed Verge editor does, I've got some bad news for you: AT&T says it's only for linking one phone to secondary connected devices.)
AT&T notes that this solution is superior to earlier attempts at solving this problem as it doesn't require any convoluted forwarding setups and can work even when the secondary devices aren't physically close to the phone or connected via Bluetooth. That gives it a leg up over platform-specific solutions, such as Apple's Continuity between iPhones and iPads. It also comes at no additional charge over the standard $10 per month fee to add a tablet or smartwatch to AT&T's shared data plans.
The carrier says it will have devices compatible with NumberSync before the end of this month, with a wider selection arriving before the holidays. It's not yet clear if unlocked devices will be compatible with the service, but AT&T says it will have more information to share in the near future.