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The French telecom competitor adds calls over Wi-Fi to settop box: The company’s Freebox already offered unlimited domestic calls (to landlines and metropolitan areas) and unlimited calls to 14 other countries. The new version adds VoIP over Wi-Fi and will work with Wi-Fi-only handsets or dual-mode handsets, although they don’t have deal with a mobile operator yet. The new service also adds high-definition television channels. All that for €29.99 per month!
AWA will deploy thousands of new hotspots for a total of 12,000: The company has 4,000 hotspots already deployed, and will use Meru and Firetide gear (via distributor Optical) to move to 12,000 within two years; 4,500 will be at gas stations. The hotspots will support VoIP via Qtek phones that handle both VoWLAN and GSM.
Talktelecom has trialed a voice over Wi-Fi service in Dublin and is now introducing a pilot offering: The details of this are a bit thin and the company’s Web site doesn’t add much. Talktelecom’s head says that customers will be able to download a special application to their Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phone that will allow them to make voice over Wi-Fi calls via Talktelecom’s service. The company says rates will amount to €2 per hour.
The most interesting component of this announcement is the application. While it’s simple enough for companies to build applications that can be downloaded to PDAs and PCs, it has historically been difficult to offer applications to be downloaded to mobile phones. Java- and Brew-enabled phones allow application downloads. The newest model smartphones that include Wi-Fi may offer some more open platforms for applications.
The Talktelecom executive notes that half of mobile calls made by business users are made in the office and I’ve heard similar figures before. That means that this service could cut costs for enterprises if their workers use the voice over Wi-Fi service instead of the mobile phone network. Some companies like BridgePort are developing enterprise-grade solutions that tie into the corporate phone network and enable voice over Wi-Fi in the office. BridgePort must make deals with mobile operators for its service to work, however, and I suspect that may cause problems for it. An offering from a company like Talktelecom is likely far less expensive, though wouldn’t support as many services, and basically cuts out the mobile operator.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post referred to a vague relationship between Talktelecom and hotspot operator BitBuzz, per reporting in the ENN story. I followed up with BitBuzz for more details and have learned that no such deal exists. ENN has posted a correction.
Meru Networks’ CEO thinks that Japan will be the first place that voice over Wi-Fi really takes off: Meru is supplying wireless LAN infrastructure to three voice over IP suppliers in Japan. Meru’s CEO sees NTT DoCoMo’s introduction of a combined cellular and Wi-Fi handset as an indication of the push toward voice over Wi-Fi in Japan. There are a lot of important business issues surrounding voice over Wi-Fi that still need to be worked out, but the concept is one that is definitely moving ahead.
Broadreach Networks, an operator with 350 fixed and Wi-Fi locations in the UK, is offering free network access for Skype users: Skype considers Broadreach its first partner for Skype’s voice over Wi-Fi offering. Skype users could make Skype calls in any hotspot; the key to this announcement is that Broadreach is offering Skype users free access to its networks. It’s unclear if there is a time frame for this deal. If not and if Skype manages to make similar deals with other hotspot operators, this could become a very powerful service. Potentially, Skype customers could ultimately pop into most any hotspot and make calls for free. It would be a great service for customers and could potentially draw business to the hotspot operators because once in a hotspot a customer could decide to buy access to check email or the Internet.
It may be significant that Skype’s first foray into voice over wireless is with a relatively small operator like Broadreach. Other large hotspot operators may have been approached but declined to participate because they have cellular networks or even local phone networks and may be wary of encouraging a free voice service.
Even though cell phone penetration is really high in Europe, calls are quite expensive compared to U.S. cell phone rates. For that reason, I think that some people would be willing to pop into a hotspot to make a free Skype call if a hotspot is reasonably close by.
On a practical note, until more handheld devices are available that can run Skype, I wonder how many people will be interested in making Skype calls from hotspots. Personally, I wouldn’t be terribly comfortable sitting in a public cafe making a phone call using a headset and my laptop.
Infonetics Research reports that worldwide voice over Wi-Fi handset revenue reached €35 million in 2004: Total units sold were 113,000. Combined Wi-Fi/cellular handset revenue reached €5.1 million in 2004, representing 8,000 handsets sold. Much of this market so far, especially the standalone handsets, is likely in the enterprise market, where companies like Spectralink have been selling voice over Wi-Fi systems.
These numbers should grow as companies roll out devices aimed at the broader market. Skype just announced that its voice over IP client will come loaded on PDAs made by Carrier Devices. The PDAs will be equipped with Wi-Fi and GSM/GPRS. PDAs are still largely used by business customers so this product, which is also made by an obscure manufacturer, isn’t likely to expand the market into new segments, like the consumer world. But, coming loaded with Skype’s client is clearly a step toward making it easier for users to use voice over Wi-Fi.
This blogger admittedly is offering pure speculation, but it’s an interesting idea (scroll down to Jan. 14 entry): Apparently Vonage UK has appointed a new CEO whose name is not yet revealed. This blogger knows the chap and connecting the dots between the new CEO, the forthcoming Vonage Wi-Fi handset, and a leap into the future of combined GSM/Wi-Fi phones, he has drawn the conclusion that perhaps Vonage may be considering launching its own mobile virtual network operator. For those of you not familiar with the term, MVNO’s don’t own a cellular network but they buy air time from an operator and resell a branded service to end users. Vonage would be in a great position to try to sell cellular access to its existing customers, especially those who use the Wi-Fi handset and are already used to Vonage being a quasi-mobile operator.
In fact, a combined service from Vonage would be a very powerful offering that might make the existing cell phone and landline operators a bit nervous. Vonage customers could truly use a single handset both at home and out and about. At home, coverage wouldn’t be an issue like it is with cell phones in the house because users would attach to their Wi-Fi network, which presumably offers good coverage throughout their house. Once they leave the house, the cell network would take over, unless the user is in a hotspot that is compatible with the Vonage service. Vonage would own the relationship with the cell phone customer and it would be stealing voice minutes from the local incumbent. Even if the incumbent is offering the DSL that enables Vonage in the house, they will be offering a flat rate monthly access fee so they’d still be losing the voice minutes the customer would otherwise pay for on the phone.
Vonage would be positioned to beat anyone else to market with such a combined service. While some cellular devices that include Wi-Fi are being sold, few, if any, support voice over Wi-Fi. Some of the cell phone operators talk about combined services, but I suspect they’re too worried about canabalizing their cell networks that they’ll only launch the combined service as a last resort, namely to compete against the likes of a company like Vonage offering such a service.
This extensive round-up of voice over Wi-Fi activity offers a great basis for considering whether voice over Wi-Fi may present a threat to the mobile players: There are plenty of voice over Wi-Fi moves happening in Europe, including an O2 trial in April in the UK, a voice over Wi-Fi enabled mobile phone to come from BT, and Wi-Fi phones from Motorola and Nokia that will support voice over Wi-Fi.
As this article aptly notes, it’s the standalone mobile operators without any landline properties that might be feeling a bit threatened by the talk of voice over Wi-Fi. But as the author also notes, voice over Wi-Fi calling in the consumer market is unlikely to steal a major amount of traffic from the mobile networks, given that Wi-Fi networks have relatively small coverage areas.
Voice over Wi-Fi in offices, however, could make a more significant dent in the revenues that mobile operators earn, because high volumes of mobile phone calls are currently made by employees to colleagues in offices. In the U.S., where many companies have made or are making the switch to voice over IP, the next transition to voice over Wi-Fi seems logical. Such voice over Wi-Fi phones in offices could steal some traffic from the mobile networks. For some operators, that may not be significant, however. Vodafone, at least around here, has an offering that allows colleagues to talk to each other for free.
Research firm In-Stat believes that wireless voice over IP offers the greater market opportunity for voice over IP. In-Stat expects revenues for voice over IP chips to grow pretty dramatically through 2008, with the main driver being combined cellular and voice over Wi-Fi handsets. In-Stat doesn’t expect such combined devices to go mainstream in any significant way until 2006, though.
Vonage, which launched its service in the UK yesterday, will also probably introduce voice over Wi-Fi in the UK this summer: The launch of the wireless service is likely to coincide with the launch in the United States. Vonage said at the Consumer Electronics Show that it would introduce a UTStarcom Wi-Fi phone configured to offer Vonage’s voice over IP service.
I’m dubious about how useful consumers will find voice over Wi-Fi. The phones will be convenient in the home as a cordless phone, but Vonage customers can already use their existing cordless phones, which undoubtedly cost less than the voice over Wi-Fi phone. Otherwise, hotspots are usually far enough apart, that the phone certainly wouldn’t be useful as a way to be reached when away from home. Users would have to seek out hotspots to make phone calls on it.
There is also the issue of users being required to subscribe to each hotspot the phone may connect to as well as how users will be authenticated, as Glenn Fleishman notes at partner blog Wi-Fi Networking News.
Even just a few days into the new year, it seems clear that voice over Wi-Fi is going to be the hot topic for the year: In Ireland, a number of startups are aggressively developing and offering voice over Wi-Fi services. Wireless Projects, which builds Wi-Fi networks in apartment complexes, plans to offer a voice over Wi-Fi offering this year.
Another Irish company, Cicero Networks, offers software for smart phones, PDAs, and laptops that allows users to make voice over Wi-Fi calls. Cicero is positioning its product as a way to offer landline operators an entrée into the mobile phone business, but clearly in a limited manner because coverage is limited to Wi-Fi hotspots.