Like most people who aren't overly sensitive to advertising, I'm not a compulsive buyer of status symbols, and I'm usually happy with whatever I have. I'm happy with my cheap, fuel-efficient vehicle, even though it's dwarfed by minivans and SUVs (and even by myself when I step out of it). I can pass off my regular cell phone as stylishly small because I'm above-average height and have proportionately large hands. A brick would look small and thin in them. And because I'm a touch-typist, not a thumb-typist, I don't crave BlackBerry-style, universal e-mail access.
That said, as I'm on assignment in Britain this month, I'm starting to envy the residents of that country quite a bit. It's not the universal health care or the public transportation system or any of the usual envies: it's the upcoming BT Fusion2 phone
. This monster is a moby
(the prevalent Britspeak for a cell phone) with a few extra tricks up its sleeve: When it launches this autumn, it will use Bluetooth to detect when its owner's landline is in range, then act like a cordless landline extension. And when it gets within range of a supported Wi-Fi hot spot, the BT Fusion will connect to it to make VoIP calls.
As I'm on assignment in Britain this month, I'm starting to envy the residents of that country quite a bit. It's not the universal health care or the public transportation system or any of the usual envies: it's the upcoming BT Fusion2 phone.
This is an utterly cool idea that takes the whole premise of the Internet to its logical conclusion: the Internet is all about providing multiple paths for data to travel along. The original reason was to survive network outages. Now, it's all about finding the cheapest route for communication. But BT Fusion's approach is not perfect: its VoIP works only in select Wi-Fi areas, including big cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, and Westminster. The next logical step, of course, is being able to make VoIP calls from wherever your cell phone gets a signal. I can spend anywhere from 34 cents per minute to almost $2 per minute on international calls with my cell phone plan. (Who knew Bulgaria was so expensive to call?) If I were sitting at home in front of Skype, it would be a flat 2.1 cents per minute to anywhere in the world.
That kind of price differential is enough to mobilize two groups: VoIP providers looking to deliver mobile services to customers and cell phone providers looking to protect their golden goose. Sure enough, we have a bit of action from both going on at the moment on both sides of the Atlantic. The promise
In theory, all a caller needs for mobile VoIP is a cell phone with Internet access and the ability to store and run a VoIP program. Most phones in circulation are able to do this, of course. All that's missing is the program itself and a sensibly priced mobile Internet service.
In theory, all a caller needs for mobile VoIP is a cell phone with Internet access and the ability to store and run a VoIP program.
Several companies are already getting mobile VoIP service in place. Mino Wireless USA
claims to be the first U.S. company to offer mobile VoIP in this country, with its little Java download and service running at about 2.2 cents per minute to 40 different countries. All its subscribers need is Cingular, Nextel, or T-Mobile service for Internet data and a phone that can handle Java.
Another mobile start-up called iSkoot
provides a mobile download that hooks up to the Skype network and is working to provide a bridge between cell phones and voice IM services, such as Google Talk
And four months ago, a major player in Asian networking, the Hutchison 3 Group, signed an agreement with Skype
to provide another bridge between mobile phones and VoIP networks. The stumbling block
But on the mobile Internet service end, the brakes are being applied. T-Mobile UK has already blocked mobile VoIP from its commodity-priced Web'n'Walk service
, leading people to make their own conclusions. Conspiracy theorists and disgruntled phone-company haters assume cell phone providers are unwilling to give up a lucrative revenue stream in international calls. Corporate apologists assume that consumers will blame any poor-quality calls on T-Mobile, leading to customer dissatisfaction and increased tech support calls. Technologists assume that flooding an all-you-can-eat data plan with VoIP calls will max out the network's bandwidth so that nobody will enjoy good mobile Internet access. And people with stock assume that T-Mobile is just protecting the market for any mobile VoIP plans it may have in the pipeline.
Whatever the cause of this service blockage, we suspect that mobile VoIP will come with a few hidden costs from the cellular service, so it should be approached with caution.
Whatever the cause of this service blockage, we suspect that mobile VoIP will come with a few hidden costs from the cellular service, so it should be approached with caution. Approached, certainly, but with the assumption that your cell phone bill may include some data charges unless you check in advance. Mobile VoIP is here now (sort of)
Of course, I have a kind of jerry-rigged mobile VoIP working right now. It requires that a piece of hardware be plugged into my phone and PC and that my PC to be active all the time. But it does give me Skype-rate phone calls from my cell phone (and, for that matter, from any phone able to call my home number). It cost slightly more than 60 bucks from Actiontec, and it's called VoSky Call Center
I got VoSky Call Center initially so that I could use my landline phone to call out using Skype, but the software can take things much further: It can dial up my mobile whenever my Skype account gets a call. It can call me when a particular Skype contact logs on. When I dial my home number from my mobile and enter a code, I can dial out using Skype. (This is especially fast if you can remember your Skype speed-dial numbers.)
OK, so it's not true mobile VoIP. But it's a pretty good facsimile, and if I continue to make calls to Bulgaria, it will pay for itself in half an hour of airtime. And that's worth calling home about.
Matt Lake's on the phone right now. If you'd like to leave a message, please do so in the feedback section below.