Taking VoIP to the streets

22 Jun 2006

by Janice Chong

VoIP began in the international long-distance segment, where alternative voice service providers championed discounted calls through two-stage dialing.

To protect their market share, mobile operators purchased wholesale VoIP from international exchange carriers such as iBasis, Level 3 Communications and Global Crossing to route international calls onto their IP network.

Call rates then plunged as much as 70% in certain routes and long-distance airtime charges declined.

Last year, iBasis, one of ten major global wholesale VoIP vendors, transacted around 7.7 billion VoIP minutes. Skype Technologies SA gained more than 75 million online subscribers since its launch in August 2003.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) calling using Internet-based instant messaging or VoIP connections has already made its debut in the US with the introduction of iSkootMobile, a mobile VoIP service, in February.

Bypassing conventional broadband or Wi-Fi connections, this service works on a mobile calling plan with unlimited data service subscription and supports instant messaging over Skype.

iSkootMobile imports Skype's Internet telephony service over landline onto the mobile phone. End-users only pay for airtime on the cellphone and SkypeOut minutes, which are significantly lower than traditional long-distance airtime rates.

Although this service applies only to outbound calls now, there are plans to include inbound calls using the call-forwarding function.

Mobile VoIP bandwagon

Cingular Wireless recently engaged iSkootMobile to enable cheap P2P calling, simply by installing the free client software onto its customers' mobile phones.

Mobile VoIP is already making headway, with carriers such as Hutchison jumping onto the mobile VoIP bandwagon. Hutchison has partnered with Skype to provide VoIP services over its 3G network in up to eight markets - Skype will be bundled with Hutchison's flat-rate fee data plans.

With Hutchison 3's 11.9 million subscribers and Skype's 75 million online users, the implications are far-reaching. The deal is expected to encourage subscriber migration onto flat-rate plans and to significantly reduce airtime per-minute charges.

The emergence of dual-mode Wi-Fi-GSM handsets and the creeping influence of unlicensed mobile access (UMA) and WiMAX are viewed as key enablers of mobile VoIP.

Roaming between cellular and wireless LAN/VoIP networks can yield significant cost savings to consumers and enterprises as airtime rates over IP networks are a fraction of fixed/cellular charges.

Diverting traffic onto the fixed, wireless or IP network is catching on as network providers attempt to deliver differentiated value-added services in view of intense competition.

BT's BT Fusion, for example, enables voice calls over either cellular or fixed network at lower rates depending on the user's location.

The introduction of mobile VoIP-enabled handsets by Nokia and Motorola in February is also a timely move. The handsets allow users to connect seamlessly between the cellular and VoIP network, making cheaper calls possible from homes, offices or hotspots.

BT has already begun shipping these handsets to its BT Fusion customers.

While services such as mobile TV, video streaming, music and multiplayer mobile games are major catalysts for the deployment of high-speed data networks, mobile VoIP may be the killer application for 3G.

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