Mobile VoIP: What’s In a Name?

New technologies sell better if they have cool-sounding names. So much so that cool sounding names are often claimed by multiple technologies that aren’t by any means identical.

Take “Mobile VoIP,” for example. Within the past week, we’ve gotten wind of no fewer than three companies bandying the term about—and none of the three is talking primarily about Voice over WLAN, (aka VoWiFi or ~WiMAX, or VoFi), which is certainly a mobile form of VoIP—using a particular type of network connection.

No, these MoVoIP providers are talking about technology that lets you use your mobile (cellular) phone as the primary connectivity tool. Let’s take a look at each of the three and see how mobile they really are, and what other advantages might flow from working off the mobile phone.

Do you be Ubi?
UbiFone is a recently birthed U.S.-based company with international aspirations and reach. (Its ‘other’ offices are in Singapore.) At the core of UbiFone’s business model is a worldwide network of VoIP carriers, providing connectivity to thousands of calling areas in more than 150 countries.

Each subscriber is issued a Ubi Global Number (aka Ubi Virtual Number). Calling between Ubi numbers is free (like Skype-to-Skype calls).

Calling off the Ubi network (to the PSTN or cellular networks) is according to a case-by-case rate scale that can range from under two cents U.S. per minute to many times that.

The heart of the UbiFone MoVoIP service, on the other hand, is an Internet-connected “base station,” a piece of customer premise equipment (CPE) that serves as a bridge between your cell phone and the Internet.

When you are within range of the base station, cell calls are routed through the base station to Ubi’s VoIP network, presumably saving you POTS of money. Incoming calls can be routed to the phone hardware of your choice.

How mobile is this solution?

I was unable to speak with a spokesperson for UbiFone, and get answers to specific questions, so the conclusions offered here are drawn from the company website and literature. The base station is described as ‘portable,’ but it requires a broadband Internet connection, which is not likely to be available just anywhere. This would appear, then, to be pretty much a home-based solution with the cell phone functioning like a cordless handset.

Make mine mint
Another fledgling company (that’s not officially using the term Mobile VoIP at the moment) is mint telecom, out of LA. Their basic premise, according to CEO Jason Jepson, is “Why not makes calls through the Internet—without being tied to a computer?” That is, through your cell phone.

The way the mint system works is that subscribers get a virtual Direct Inward Dialing (local phone) number that is their entry point to the mint database/NOC. Once connected with mint, users input the number they wish to dial, and the call is completed via VoIP.

Since the bridge is the cellular network, the mint service is as mobile as any cellular service. Technically, outside your local calling area, you might end up paying a slightly higher tariff for the cell portion of the call, but since most U.S. cell subscribers have long-distance built into their plans, this may not make any difference. In fact, “For other than international calls, most Americans would probably just use their cell,” Jepson pointed out.

Mint subscribers pay a modest monthly fee plus a per-minute charge for all calls they make. There’s a clear international calling rate chart on mint’s website so there should be no surprises. One caveat: Mobile termination charges in many parts of the world—in fact most parts of the world outside North America—are much higher than U.S. and Canada. There’s no way to get around them if you call internationally to a cell phone.

You may want UMA
Another scheme for melding cell phones and VoIP comes from Kineto Wireless, but you can’t get it . . . yet.

Here’s the story. Kineto is one of the founding members of a consortium now named UMA (for Unlicensed Mobile Access) Technologies. UMA is the first organization to successfully promulgate a standard for achieving what’s popularly known as WCC—Wi-Fi/Cellular Convergence (or in some circles Cellular/Wi-Fi Convergence).

In a nutshell, Kineto’s UMA implementation involves dual-mode phones (phones that can connect both to IEEE 802.11 wireless networks and to cell networks) and a network controller that performs authentication and decides which network to connect a caller to.

When the caller is indoors and within range of a Wi-Fi access point (AP; same thing as a base station), the call will be routed over the Wi-Fi network using VoIP. When the caller is outdoors, out of range of an AP, the call is routed over the cell network. Theoretically, the controller can even hand off a call from one network to the other.

What needs to happen before this becomes a reality?

Well, dual-mode phones need to be available, and they’re not . . . yet. According to Kineto founder Mark Powell, however, “a number of top handset manufacturers are supporting UMA. Early in 2006 you’ll see a number of very competitive mainstream handsets. There’s going to be quite a variety, from mid-tier camera phones to sophisticated Symbian-type smartphones.”

Contrary to popular misconception, these devices will be neither particularly bulky nor particularly expensive, Powell told “Putting Wi-Fi into a phone doesn’t add a lot of bulk or a lot of expense,” he said.

Also necessary is adoption by service providers—think mobile carriers. According to Powell, British Telecom’s BT Fusion offering will be converting to UMA around the turn of the New Year. Kineto partner Motorola Networks is running trials with seven European carriers, and working with two (un-named) GSM providers in North America.

Monica Paolini, president of Senza Fili Colsulting suggested to EnterpriseVoIPplanet that those wanting to know the identity of the carriers testing UMA in the United States should think about providers that offer no wireline service that might be cannibalized by a move to the Wi-Fi—cell combo.

One clear benefit from WCC should be lower costs. Building out Wi-Fi networks is an inexpensive way (relative to cellular) to add overall network capacity. Another benefit would be improved indoor service quality. And the indoor-outdoor connectivity promises to make mobile telephony even more truly mobile than it is at present.

In any case, it may be a mere matter of months before the Wi-Fi/Cellular Convergence phenomenon is upon us—at least some of us.

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