Taking VoIP for a Walk

A NEW BREED OF VOIP is looking for a home with mobile users. The application offers wireless savings and new functionalities, like presence management, making for an interesting opportunity for wireless dealers and VARs. While off-portal application providers dominate the discussion for now and the reach of dualmode phones is embryonic, the stage is set for wireless operators to trot out mobile VoIP options and spark wider adoption. Whether the app will become mans best friend remains to be seen.

There are two parallel trends in mobile VoIP. One involves an IP client that runs on existing cellular data networks and offers VoIP hallmarks such as presence management and four-digit dialing. According to research firm Analysys, cellular VoIP will carry 28 percent of total fixed and mobile voice minutes in the United States by 2015, generating more than $18.6 billion in revenue.

The other trend is dual-mode services and handsets that divert traffic from the cell network to the cheaper terrestrial data networks by switching from the cellular WAN to VoIP over Wi-Fi or WiMAX when in a hotspot/zone (see related story below).

The CDMA Development Group (CDG) points to the 1xEV-DO Revision A upgrade being implemented by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. in 2007 as a first step to carrier-grade VoIP over 3G, inciting real user adoption. Rev. A will address some of the technical problems that exist today for running VoIP on existing cellular networks, by increasing downlink and uplink speeds, providing symmetry, and reducing latency and jitter for delay-sensitive services that require increased levels of priority, according to the organization (see related story).

Under the auspices of a carriers upgraded network, VoIP can be integrated with other apps like push-to-talk, push-tomedia, video conferencing, multicasting, and 3D gaming with multiple players. All of that will set the network owners ahead of the off-portal competition, says CDG.

Being able to offer carrier-grade VoIP services over a mobile network is one of the biggest breakthroughs to come along in years, says Perry LaForge, executive director of CDG. It will help enable the convergence of telecommunications with entertainment, consumer electronics and information technology.

Also tackling the mobile VoIP technical challenges, No. 2 cellco Verizon last summer announced an initiative to complement existing IMS standards to pave the way for mobile VoIP. The operator and its vendor partners plan to hone in on quickly enabling true, access-to-core mobile VoIP as a viable replacement for existing cellular voice, along with providing end-to-end security features and expanding fixed services into the mobile market, such as IPTV.

As for deployment, some carriers are moving to bring the application under their wings and are imbuing it with QoS, perhaps mindful of the potential revenue drain from voice minutes that existing third-party clients (particularly dual-mode offers) present. Mobile operator Hutchison 3 Group plans to offer an integrated Skype client on its handsets in Asia, Australia and parts of Europe, for instance. And closer to home, third-party mobile VoIP provider iSkoot worked with Cingular Wireless to introduce the iSkoot Mobile Network, a gateway that connects cellular voice with Skype users. iSkoot plans to expand the reach to a wider selection of carriers and Internet phone services, such as Google Talk.

Most major carriers also are looking to deploy their own dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular service and phones within the next 12 months, too. Cingular has said it plans to launch an offer next year, while T-Mobile USA Inc., fresh from its spectrum wins during the fall AWS auctions, has announced it would roll out dual-mode service and phones this year, leveraging its thousands of business-oriented hotspots throughout the nation. Sprint and its joint venture cableco partners also have said that dual-mode services are on the horizon.

While the lack of phones is a gating factor in the dual-mode market for now, manufacturers are expected to ship more than 300 million dual-mode phones by 2011, according to ABI Research. And a testing program for dual-mode Wi-Ficellular devices was announced in the fall by the Wi-Fi Alliance and CTIA. The groups jointly released a test document for independent third-party laboratory tests that provide radio frequency performance mapping in a mixed-network environment. The industry-supported program will provide detailed information about the performance of the Wi-Fi radio in a converged handset, and how the cellular and Wi-Fi radios interact with one another, along with measurements on key parameters, including transmit power, receive sensitivity, emitted power and desensitization in the dual-mode environment. To complete the testing a device must also be Wi-Fi-certified for core Wi-Fi interoperability and CTIAcertified for core cellular performance.

We are certainly looking at VoIP as a great enabler for people, says Barry Tishgart, Sprints director of product marketing. We also are looking at wireless integration, like tying a mobile device to an IP PBX for a fixed-mobile convergence play. Sure, people can download a client and try to make it compatible with various hotspots, but the trouble involved in that makes it a clunky experience. One big voice plan that covers it all and offers a seamless wireless experience with all the benefits of VoIP will be much more attractive.

Regardless of whether the service is carrier-anointed or third-party, singlenetwork or dual-mode, mobile VoIP represents an undisputed opportunity for partners in the business market. The route has already been set out in the fixed environment where VoIP has successfully passed through the geek market/early adopter stage, and is now not only commonplace in business but normalized and expected, certainly for intra-company calls, says Robert Machin, product director at service fulfillment vendor Axiom Systems Inc. Mobile VoIP will not face a hearts and minds challenge as its value is now recognized.

VoIP Unleashed

While mobile VoIP from the carriers is in development now, there is no lack of third-party options in the market for dealers to offer their clients.

iSkoots mobile VoIP application offers road warriors presence management.

Our next push is for the enterprise market, says Jing Liu, CEO at MINO Wireless, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based mobile services company, which has a cellular-based Java application that gives users access to VoIP transport, a contact list and one-button dialing. The company markets via VARs and viral marketing. We can talk to any CFO and they will listen because of the savings we can provide international wireless phone bills can be six figures, easily. And we reach those BlackBerry and Treo corporate users already. MINO began offering its service in early 2006 and has signed up more than 75,000 users, Liu says.

Jacob Guedalia, CEO at mobile VoIP developer iSkoot, says the real value in mobile VoIP is bringing PC functionality to the cell phone. The ROI here is crisp it saves a lot of money, he says. But it also offers the buddy list and availability management, for a lifestyle advantage lacking in vanilla voice plans. Its the difference between fax and e-mail.

iSkoot also sees the business market and VARs as a valuable channel for the company. This brings in presence cost-effectively, and its highly valuable to that market, Guedalia notes. We definitely are interested in those business channels.

Pure mobile VoIP does present some potential issues. One of the problems is the fact that two-way packet voice communications chews up bandwidth and requires QoS and packet prioritization, a problem for todays cellular networks with VoIP at scale. Liu says MINOs application works by temporarily using a Java-enabled phones cellular connection to access the Internet and establish a call. It hangs up, then calls the user back with a VoIP bridging service that also calls the call recipient.

iSkoot users meanwhile download a small piece of software to their mobile phones to use the service, which connects over the air to a circuitswitched gateway to carry the voice onto a VoIP transport network.We take advantage of part of the TDM cellular network for voice, and the data IP network for the presence and advanced features, because the existing cellular networks cant handle two-way, all-IP voice just quite yet, says Guedalia. And Wi-Fi hotspots are not ubiquitous, so dualmode is a nascent market.

Some companies nonetheless are rushing to offer users a way to wirelessly call more cheaply using IP when in a broadband wireless hotspot, a particularly attractive service for international travelers. Skype, for instance, is working with handset manufacturers to embed its client for use in hotspots a new device feature for wireless dealers to showcase as a differentiator. Vonage Holdings Corp., which works with VARs to penetrate the business market, also has taken to the road with a dual-mode handset known as the V-Phone.

VoIP on Wireless, part of U.K.-based cell phone distributor Car Phone Factory, resells a dual-mode service and handset for businesses via its dealer network. The service is from Swiss VoIP company Voice Internet Phone Network. The phones autodetect any SIM card, so they work on any GSM network, says John Alemparte, director of business development at VoIP on Wireless. They are quad-band, Windows Mobile 5 smart phones, and they will soon also be able to eliminate international roaming charges by carrying the calls from/to another country over our VoIP network, making traditional cellular service obsolete, at least internationally. We will also be working with major partners to develop metropolitan Wi-Fi so users can carry their phone anywhere in their city and receive calls to/from the house. He says the service is available anywhere and is completely seamless to the user, who will notice only a cheaper cell phone bill. One of the benefits for dealers lies in configuring the access and account for business users, troubleshooting any problems along the way, he notes.

Axiom Systems
CDMA Development Group
Cingular Wireless
MINO Wireless Inc.
Skype Ltd.
Sprint Nextel Corp.
Sylantro Systems
T-Mobile USA Inc.
Verizon Wireless
Voice Internet Phone Network
VoIP on Wireless

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