Carriers can’t ignore Wi-Fi

Most mobile workers can’t live without their cell phones, but there are times when even the most cell-addicted road warrior is forced to go without. Many remote rural areas still lack solid cell coverage and even in the core of downtown Toronto, thick concrete walls and floors can cause signal strength bars to shrink or fade away altogether.

One way to get around cellular black holes is a combination of voice over IP and Wi-Fi. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, UTStarcom unveiled the GF200 — one of the first dual cell/VoIP phones. The GF200 looks just like like a standard cell phone, but can connect to both GSM and Wi-Fi networks.

Unfortunately, Howard Frisch, director of handset product management at UTStarcom, believes it’s highly unlikely existing North American cell phone companies will be interested in promoting a handset that could significantly cut into their revenues. If users are able to make VoIP calls on their cell phones while they’re at home or work, they’ll reduce their number of billable cell minutes.

It would be unfortunate if Canadian enterprises with mobile workforces were unable to roll out a productivity-enhancing technology like dual-mode cell/VoIP phones just because wireless carriers aren’t willing to part with their precious per-minute cell phone pricing schemes.

Luckily, the situation may not be as bleak as UTStarcom’s Frisch believes. Mobile VoIP vendor BridgePort Networks has an alliance called Mobile Integrated Go-to-Market Network IP Telephony Experience, or MobileIGNITE, that aims to offer mobile carriers end-to-end systems that would allow callers to roam between cellular and VoIP networks. The group includes heavy hitters such as IBM and VeriSign.

BridgePort has also been trialing its technology with Bell Canada since last year. When they announced the trial in late 2004, Bell and BridgePort said their goal was to give mobile users one handset, one number and one mailbox that could be used at home or on the road.

Why would Bell want to introduce a technology that could cut into its cellular revenues? Part of the reason could be to prevent Bell’s cell customers from moving over to separate VoIP providers and using their traditional Bell cell phone as little as possible. Another reason could be to make Bell a more attractive option than competing cellular providers.

So what’s holding up the launch of dual-mode services? Part of the answer is technology. Making sure the VoIP portion works as it should is tricky, as is handling any hand-offs that might occur between VoIP and cellular networks.

Another complication may be pricing. Cellular carriers have invested heavily in 3G wireless equipment and need to keep driving up revenues to justify those investments. Dual-mode cell/VoIP phones will definitely drive down cell minutes, so carriers will have to come up with a way to at least partially offset the drop in billable cellular minutes.

If cellular providers don’t come up with dual-mode services, it shouldn’t be long before VoIP companies begin offering handsets that can replace cell phones where Wi-Fi is available. Having two separate wireless companies and numbers obviously isn’t as convenient as one phone, one number and one mailbox, but if it means saving money and being able to operate in cellular dead zones, mobile workers will find the Wi-Fi option hard to resist.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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