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Osaka Gas in Japan is building a network that will allow employees to roam between a WLAN and the wide area cellular network: Workers will have dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi handsets that reportedly will seamlessly hand voice calls between the networks. The service will use NTT DoCoMo’s cellular network. It’s not clear how many people will have the devices, but the WLAN will support voice and cover Osaka Gas’ 50 offices.
This is a pretty impressive system and one of the earliest to support seamless handoff of voice between cellular and Wi-Fi. I shouldn’t be surprised to see it happening from NTT DoCoMo, which has traditionally been pretty forward-thinking and willing to embrace new technologies. Many operators elsewhere seem to be regarding such converged solutions as a potential threat because calls are handed off the cellular network onto a network owned by an enterprise. It’s unclear, however, how this deal was set up so there’s a chance that NTT DoCoMo is retaining some sort of control over services that may be available over the WLAN or is somehow otherwise benefiting from the WLAN piece.
Boingo says it will offer a subscription for Skype customers to use the service in Boingo hotspots: The news is to be introduced early Tuesday but it appears to have already hit in Europe. Boingo customers can pay $8 a month to use Skype in Boingo hotspots. More details to come after we’ve had the chance to see the official announcement.
Update: The heads of Boingo and Skype offered some more details on this beta offering. Users will be able to download the software from Skype’s Web site and all of Skype’s premium services will be available to users. Initially, the software will just be available for Windows users. I’m not exactly sure what that means for voice over Wi-Fi handset users.
I would expect this to be marginally interested, but clearly the heads of these companies think this is going to be a disruptive offering. Dave Hagen, Boingo’s CEO and president, said he expects this service to interest mainstream users. But realistically, this would be most interesting to a budget-conscious frequent traveler. Hagen has a point when he says that most travelers spend a lot of time in airports, hotels, and cafes—all locations that do or are likely to have hotspots. That traveler could save a lot of money by spending just $8 a month to make calls in those locations instead of paying for airtime on their cell phones.
One journalist on the call asked a question about companies like Vodafone, that are threatening to block voice over IP over their 3G data networks. If data access prices drop enough, at some point it can become more economical for users to do voice over the 3G data networks. Unfortunately, not only does that cut into regular voice profits for the mobile operators, it’s a really inefficient way for operators to carry voice. Skype’s CEO, Niklas Zennstrom, said such moves to block voice over 3G are evidence that the 3G operators might be worried about the types of applications customers might decide to use over their data channels.
For now, doing voice over 3G data networks shouldn’t be much of a problem, given the rates the operators are charging for data access. Zennstrom noted that he does voice over Vodafone’s 3G network using a data card and that in a matter of minutes he pays the same as a month’s subscription to the new Skype/Boingo offering. He’s exaggerating but his point that $8 a month is a good deal is well taken.
Sprint will offer 3G services to cell customers: Their latest customers is TCS, an E911 location provider that works with cellular carriers to provide the information for dispatch police, fire, and emergency personnel. In traditional E911, a fixed phone number is matched against records and provided to the response center. For cell users, their location has to be plotted against cell towers.
This partnership would allow VoIP companies that offer soft phones to meet the FCC mandate for E911 by integrating Skyhook’s technology into their packages and tying that, in turn, into TCS’s ability to deliver the coordinates to response centers.