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The Wall Street Journal writes about the increasing amount of Wi-Fi found as a feature on cell phones, allowing VoIP calls outside carriers’ networks: A number of cell phones now include Wi-Fi for browsing, but on platforms that allow third-party applications to be installed—like Windows Mobile or Symbian, but not yet the iPhone (we know this before it’s released, even)—VoIP packages can make the phones even more useful.
This isn’t converged calling, like T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home national network announced yesterday, in which Wi-Fi is used just like GSM, and is managed and controlled by the carrier and the handset. Rather, this is Wi-Fi used as an Internet connectivity tool over which arbitrary applications can run.
It’s one reason that Apple and AT&T aren’t allowing third-party programs on the iPhone at launch. With well-designed Wi-Fi and a powerful operating system, it might have been a matter of weeks for Skype, the Gizmo Project, Bria, and other soft phones and VoIP software with existing Mac OS X clients to be adapted.
A UK marketing director at Siemens says that two years of Wi-Fi-only mobile phones show that the market isn’t there: Of course, you know that I’d argue it’s really about the network, not the hardware. Wi-Fi phones without accompanying Wi-Fi hot spot plans and good Wi-Fi connection software (including corporate connectivity support, which isn’t hard to enable) are just toys, not tools. The Belkin Wi-Fi Phone is the only Wi-Fi-only phone that’s not a toy because it ties built-in Skype with Boingo Mobile for hotspot access. (At $180, it’s an expensive non-toy; add $9 per month for Boingo and $30 per year for unlimited US/Canada calling with Skype, and $60 per year for a real incoming phone number and voicemail.)
The director did say that combining 3G cell connectivity with the DECT cordless phone’s successor CAT-iq (cordless advanced technology for Internet and quality) could make a lot of sense, because CAT-iq uses the 1.9 GHz band, not the crowded 2.4 GHz band employed by Wi-Fi. (I’d argue here that 802.11n, when cheap enough and low power enough to put into phones will make efficient enough use of spectrum that that’s not really an issue.)
Siemens will release hybrid phones that use CAT-iq to make calls over landlines and the Internet via VoIP, and a gateway that can offer CAT-iq and Wi-Fi.
T-Mobile re-launched its HotSpot@Home service today across the U.S.: The service, initially offered just in Washington state since last fall, is now available nationally with new phones models, new router models, and a modified pricing plan, along with a short-term lifetime pricing reduction. See the main article at Wi-Fi Networking News about the launch.
The converged calling service Unik is seeing a fast uptake: Orange France has sold 250,000 of its Wi-Fi/GSM phones since its launch, exceeding a target of 200,000 units. The phones cost €9 to €79, but only 60 percent of buyers have turned on the Wi-Fi calling feature. Orange France charges €10 for unlimited calls to fixed lines and €22 per month for unlimited calls to Orange mobile numbers (23m of those). Orange claims it operates 30,000 hotspots to facilitate Wi-Fi only calling, but that number seems awfully high.
Cincinnati Bell Wireless is offering Wi-Fi/cell handsets for calling on local hotspots, cell network: The UMA handsets are $65 with a $15 rebate; $10 per month buys unlimited calls over Wi-Fi. The cell operator has 300 hotspots in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. Not mentioned is whether the carrier offers a home router with better features for VoIP calling (like improved power management).