Voice over IP pioneer Vonage is to market a mobile phone handset for around $100, the company announced today. Existing subscribers may be offered the handset, the F1000, for free. The handset could be used at Wi-Fi hotspots, but given the chaotic state of the infant Wi-Fi market - with a paucity of hotspots and few roaming agreements - Vonage's moby is more likely to take the place of the cordless home handset. Hutchison's Rabbit venture was intended to bring low cost mobile telephony to the masses ahead of the general availability of GSM, but even with many more hotspots, failed to catch on.
Mobile VoIP also faces other hurdles. Many potential customers in the affluent West already have a mobile phone and thanks to number of useful services being added to the platform, such as billing, are unlikely to relinquish it, or carry two phones. And regulators have failed to tackle 'virtualizing' phone numbers. Just as internet email doesn't require the sender to know the recipient's IP address (there may be several); phone users can only guarantee being reached by jumping through some hoops and setting up their own forwarding arrangements. More pressing technical issues, such as termination and billing must first be resolved, and the UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) alliance, which includes Motorola, BT and Ericsson, is addressing some of these.
For developing markets, there may be hope for a Wi-Fi or WiMAX based mobile phone, and Vonage's partner UTStarcom mentioned Asia and Latin America in the announcement today.
Nevertheless, almost every telco company is attempting a converged fixed/mobile service of some kind - and Wi-Fi plays a part in all of these efforts. BT's Bluephone is the most conspicuous of these, expected this spring. But don't hold your breath if you're expecting Skype-style pricing. "Calls will be charged at mobile rates unless BT decides to offer a discount," a spokesman for the telco told The Register last year.
Vonage's F1000 will be available in the spring/summer. ®
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