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Most U.S. cell phone operators are still wary of enabling voice over Wi-Fi: That’s not much of a surprise, though their attitudes will likely have to change in the future. Ultimately I think that one of the smaller cellular operators or maybe even an MVNO, if they can figure out the backend, will be the first to offer a converged Wi-Fi/cellular offering and the rest will have to follow their lead.
Later this year, Skype will offer its own Wi-Fi phone: The phone will work over standard Wi-Fi networks to connect with the Skype peer-to-peer system. If it’s tied in with SkypeOut and SkypeIn, as one would expect it is, it could become the ultimate cell phone complement.
On the other hand, interface is everything: I expect your buddy list will be available, so you won’t have to spend much time keying in data, but will it support WEP, WPA, and 802.1X?
This nice roundup at Wi-Fi Planet details announcements from Wi-Fi chip makers that are likely targeted at the voice market: Many of the big chip makers have come out with chips designed for use in low-power handheld devices like PDAs and phones. Some of them support quality of service which helps in giving priority to voice calls.
These bits of news bode well for growth in the market for voice over Wi-Fi. But this type of news, combined with the vendors that are introducing Wi-Fi phones, also suggest that the device side of the market, as opposed to the operator side, is actually driving voice over Wi-Fi. In the cellular world, handset makers and operators usually work closely to define the capabilities that operators want. Often when a new phone is introduced, it’s done so in conjunction with an operator or operators that plan to sell it. Not so in the voice over Wi-Fi market, where some handsets are being introduced without being attached to any specific hotspot operator. Such devices can be used at home with Wi-Fi networks and in totally open public networks but would be difficult to use with subscription based services that require authentication.
Meru demonstrated voice over WLAN at a showcase in Kista, Sweden: In collaboration with OptiMobile, Meru also demonstrated a seamless handoff between GSM and Wi-Fi networks. I couldn’t find any mention on the OptiMobile Website of UMA or any of the other GSM/Wi-Fi convergence initiatives so it’s unclear if OptiMobile uses fully proprietary technology or whether it intends to follow one of the standardization processes.
The Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) group is closing down activities, since its mission became included in the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP): UMA was formed by a bunch of companies looking to enable roaming between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. The companies involved are largely looking at the issue from the mobile phone operator standpoint, with an effort to ensure the most potential revenue from such services for them. The 3GPP is part of a formal standardization process.
A company called Hop-on is offering a Wi-Fi phone for $39: I’m guessing that this phone is now becoming available to hotspot operators who would then sell them to end users. End users will have to be authorized to attach to networks that require subscriptions or payment so the phone would have to be loaded with software specific to the hotspot provider in advance to enable the authorization. I haven’t been watching the price of these handsets so closely but I should think that $39 is quite cheap.
Broadcom claims Qualcomm is infringing on some of its patents: Broadcom says that some Qualcomm products, including chipsets that provide voice over IP capabilities in mobile phones, infringe on some of its patents. I have to assume that the chips in question support voice over Wi-Fi, seeing as voice over IP over cellular is inefficient.
Vonage showed off the Wi-Fi phone that it plans to sell soon: This trialer had good luck with it. Vonage plans to try to sell the phone to international travelers and will charge them about $100.
Frank Bulk offers a great run-down of the different bodies working on cellular/Wi-Fi convergence at Mobile Pipeline: There are five such groups. That number is both an indication of the interest in this space as well as an indication of how many different types of companies stand to benefit from such convergence. Each of these groups is going at convergence from a different perspective that would benefit the members. Hopefully they won’t all create a tangled mess that makes it impossible to settle on a standardized way of voice roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi.
SCN has created software for certain Nokia phones that will initially enable voice over Bluetooth: Support for Wi-Fi is planned for the future. The software can be loaded onto the phones, which are based on the Symbian operating system, by end users or in advance by operators. The concept is similar to softphones that enable voice over IP calling and are available for download onto PCs.
SCN says that operators and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are testing the application. This type of capability may be most attractive to MVNOs. Operators will likely resist offering an open voice over Wi-Fi service as long as they can, in fear of having to hand off their customers to networks owned by other companies. But an MVNO might be interested in a combined Wi-Fi/cellular offering as a differentiator.
Such downloadable software may be what Ireland’s TalkTelecom has in mind. The company has said that it has trialed a voice over Wi-Fi service, offered to customers who have downloaded software to their phones. The handsets will have to have an operating system like Symbian to enable the download of such an application.
The newest Blackberry contains a Wi-Fi radio that can be used for voice over WLANs by business users: This could be quite a hot product for RIM. The Blackberry is already a favorite device for mobile email for business professionals and it is a device that is commonly standardized within large organizations. The new model uses the standard Session Initiation Protocol for voice and can integrate with IP PBXs used by many corporations. That means the voice services that customers can use in the office will be the same as at their desk phones and can include features such as four digit dialing.
The voice over Wi-Fi device space could get interesting to watch. While SpectraLink has been delivering wireless voice solutions to the enterprise for quite a while and is well respected, it doesn’t quite have the cache as something like the Blackberry. RIM is in an ideal position to capitalize on its loyal base of business customers.
We’ve written a lot about the Unlicensed Mobile Access group: But the IEEE has its own group that is working on a standard for roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi networks. The members of the groups come from different camps and thus have different priorities. It’s not clear if they’ll be able to merge their ultimate standards.
Members of the UMA tend to come from the cellular world, so they are concerned with having as much control as they can with when and how their customers roam onto Wi-Fi networks. The IEEE group comes from the Wi-Fi group, so they are looking for the solution to be as standards-based and open as possible. The two groups are of course aware of each other and are talking about trying to harmonize.
There’s a third group that is also working in this space, calling itself the Seamless Converged Communication Across Networks Group. It’s not clear how that group, which Motorola says is concerned with handoffs between corporate LANs and wide area cellular networks, will coexist with the others.
Calypso plans to start demonstrating its Wi-Fi/cellular phones to operators: This is really non-news, but potentially interesting for a couple of reasons. In February of 2004, Calypso received a patent on a method for roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi. The company’s CEO said it is pursuing a Qualcomm model in hoping to survive mainly on royalties. I’ll be curious to see if there is ultimately a clash between Calypso and organizations like the UMA that are pursuing standard methods for handing off calls between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.
The announcement that Calypso is demonstrating its phones is really not news—very few companies would consider such activity worth a press release. It sounds to me like an effort to get some coverage out of something quite minor, but it seems that Calypso has succeeded there because a handful of mainly small news outlets have run small pieces about it.
Vonage is reportedly trying Linksys access points that could be used with Wi-Fi handsets for voice over Wi-Fi: Recent reports also have some Vonage customers trialing Wi-Fi handsets. Vonage could be planning to start selling a whole package that would include the AP and the handset so its customers could use voice over IP calling over Wi-Fi in their homes or offices.
Vonage once had an agreement with Boingo to test out voice over Wi-Fi in hotspots. Allowing customers to use their handsets in public hotspots is a more difficult offering because the operator would have to enable authentication.
Regulators in Algeria have allowed the use of voice over Wi-Fi: Voice over IP and Wi-Fi combined enable a low cost way to deliver voice services in areas that lack basic telecom infrastructure. The technologies are also enabling competition in many countries where there may be just one telecom operator. Overall it appears that governments in Africa are trying to promote the use of voice over IP and Wi-Fi as tools that can lead to greater development in the region.
Motorola is expecting to release a converged WLAN/GSM phone this summer: The phone will be the result of the oft-trumpeted work happening among Motorola, Avaya, and Proxim. The companies have also formed a group called the Seamless Converged Communication Across Networks Group, which has been joined by some other companies. A Motorola spokesman here attempts to clarify the difference between SCCAN and the Unlicensed Mobile Access group, of which Motorola is also part. SCCAN is particularly trying to figure out handoffs between corporate WLANs and the wide area cellular networks, targeting the enterprise customer. He says it’s not necessary for one of the groups to supercede the other, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see how they evolve.
Residents of Rio Rancho, New Mexico in the United States can use voice over Wi-Fi in town: Azulstar Networks is building the Wi-Fi network, which the company claims already covers 70 percent of Rio Rancho, and Ecuity, a telephone company, is supporting the voice over IP feature. Customers get unlimited North American calling for $30 a line.
This is quite an undertaking. Coverage will have to be absolutely top notch or customers will get annoyed. People are used to being able to use their cordless phones anywhere in the house so if their Wi-Fi phones don’t work everywhere the offering may not be worth the hassle.