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The Economist offers this account of trying to find a smart phone, purchased in the U.S., that could work worldwide without mortgaging the farm: The correspondent, in the end, says that an Linux-based OpenMoko-standard phone due out in October called Neo 1973 ($450 with advanced features) is the closest to meeting the bill. It’s quad-band GSM, unlocked, with Wi-Fi and GPRS, GPS, and a Smart Digital slot; 3G comes next year. There’s no lock on what applications the phone can run. All other phones either have too many limits (such as EVDO 3G that won’t work worldwide) or charge insane roaming fees and data fees with no option to drop in a locally rented SIM card.
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.
RadioFrame has been working on femtocells for eight years, but haven’t sold a one yet: The technology of a femtocell, a pint-sized cellular network transceiver that plugs into home broadband, would allow a cell carrier to extend its network using its licensed frequencies into a home or office. Office buildings and airports already use microcells—also manufactured by RadioFrame—to ensure good signal coverage indoors. Bringing femtocells into homes would allow good reception and incremental revenue for carriers.
Femtocells face competition from unlicensed mobile access (UMA), which appears to have a headstart, despite the fact that UMA requires new handsets that mix cell and Wi-Fi (or sometimes Bluetooth) in a single phone. Femtocell-based calling wouldn’t require that a user change their handset at all. However, RadioFrame says it needs to get costs down to $150 for a femtocell to make it cost effective.
UMA has gotten a leg up through BT’s Fusion deloyment in the UK, although the early numbers there aren’t promising yet, but that might have something to do with only first-generation UMA handsets being available. T-Mobile will reportedly roll out UMA from its Washington State-only offering now to the whole US next month. The Wi-Fi Alliance is pushing UMA because they have a couple different standards that improve voice quality and battery life that they’ve been working closely with converged handset makers to adopt, as well as consumer and corporate Wi-Fi gateway manufacturers.
RadioFrame most likely is sitting on a pile of patents, too, which might be part of their long-term strategy: if femtocells take off, they can net licensing dollars as well as direct sales of their own equipment.
Network Computing looks at the Voice over IP over wireless LAN landscape: Only 100,000 to 150,000 VoWLAN phones were shipped in 2004, but the market in five years is for tens of millions between converged and VoWLAN-only phones.
Frank Bulk writes about the challenges of deploying VoWLAN handsets and infrastructure, from the high cost for phones to the rip-and-replace necessity for existing WLANs. Why can’t it be overlaid? Because phones have lower-powered radios than laptops and have to work in stairwells, and other interstices of business spaces.
Connexion by Boeing has tested in-air cell connections routed via an IP network: The idea is that a passenger’s cell phone connects to an onboard gateway that accepts GSM and CDMA calls, converts the traffic to IP, and carries the data back and forth over Connexion’s satellite link. The traffic, when it reaches the ground, is then shunted back to the public telephone network.
Connexion wants to make this available to its airline customers in 2006. It’s a nice new revenue stream for them, a potentially affordable way to make calls in flight, and the beginning of a giant market for super-noise-cancelling headphones and sleep masks. Several other companies are testing similar systems for in-flight calling.
Interesting outlook in Time Europe on how Nokia, Motorola, et al., are claiming their own position: Using VoIP and Wi-Fi handset makers can reduce their dependence on cellular operators. Customers want VoWLAN phones or at least phones that can use Wi-Fi as one option for transferring data and handling voice. In 2010, mobile revenue will be $550 billion—and the handset makers can reassign where that money goes.
Nokia says that next year, Wi-Fi will be a standard feature in its multimedia and business phones, the article notes, as well as midrange models. Motorola should be integrating Skype software with some phones next year. In-Stat’s Alan Nogee—a smart analyst—estimates a huge growth in handsets with Wi-Fi: 13.5 million in 2007, 52.8 million in 2008, and 136 million by 2010. The article notes this might be conservative and I agree: as with Wi-Fi growth curve, it either explodes or fails.