As Wi-Fi hotspots blossom around the world, a growing number of people have discovered that they can use their laptops not only to browse the web and read email, but also to make cut-rate phone calls. Perhaps you’ve seen them, poised over their machines in coffee bars, airport lounges, hotel lobbies, and dozens of other venues, wearing headsets or earbuds and chatting away as if they had all the airtime in the world.
That’s not far from the truth if they’re using a wireless version of VoIP (pronounced “voyp,” for voice over Internet Protocol). For home and office users, as Russ Banham noted in our recent article “The Ultimate Calling Plan,” the quality, reliability, and security problems that daunted past deployments of VoIP have been largely solved by telecommunications providers such as SBC, Verizon, Sype, and Vonage, and IT vendors such as Cisco, 3Com, and Avaya.
Now a new generation of WiFi-compatible mobile phones are allowing users to calls from hotspots just as easily — but much less expensively — as they would using a regular cell phone. Mobile phones that use wireless VoIP technology (wVoIP) seem to offer a “natural evolution” for telecom providers, according to Amy Cravens, an analyst for technology research firm In-Stat. (As with many new technologies, “wVoIP” is fighting for namespace with a handful of other acronyms, but it’s the one name we’ll use here.)
Most early models of such phones are prices in the $150-to-$750 range. Later this year, VoIP carrier Vonage plans to bring the technology to the masses by offering subscribers a Wi-Fi handset for about $100; Research in Motion is also preparing to release a version of its popular BlackBerry mobile communicator featuring wVoIP capabilities. Siemens, Nokia, Motorola, and other cell-phone makers have introduced Wi-Fi models that allow someone at a hotspot to check email, exchange files, and browse the web, although these models don’t yet include wVoIP technology that would also enable phone calls.
Many international business travelers have eagerly adopted wVoIP technology to escape the high long-distance prices and frustrating device-compatibility barriers that plague so many cell-phone users overseas. Shahid Ahmed, a partner with business and technology consulting firm Accenture, uses a WiFi-enabled notebook computer, VoIP software from Skype, and a headset to make his phone calls whenever he goes abroad. “I do a lot of international travel and, to me, wVoIP is the most appealing part,” he says. “Wherever I am, I just connect to broadband, whether it’s a hotel or other public hotspot, and I can make calls.”
The technology would also seem to be a natural for large workplaces where many mutually dependent employees are constantly on the go. No wonder that hospitals and other medical centers have been on the wVoIP vanguard: Physicians, nurses, and other caregivers use the technology to speak to each other between rooms, floors, and even buildings.
Amos Yahil, an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, uses his Net2Phone Wi-Fi handset “for my business calls both in the office and at home.” Yahil notes that the technology offers better reception than a cell phone and “cheaper rates that only Wi-Fi can give you.”
What Yahil doesn’t like is the limited features offered by most current Wi-Fi phones; a “speakerphone and a large database that’s synchronized with my PC” would be welcome. As with many portable devices, limited battery life has also been an issue for many users.
And like most other Wi-Fi phone enthusiasts, Yahil wishes he could make calls from more locations. Today’s models work only within a hotspot, an area that’s usually no larger than a room or building. Even in well-covered areas such as downtown Seattle, a Wi-Fi phone can be counted on to drop the connection as soon as caller moves from hotspot to hotspot. Emerging technologies such as citywide mesh networks, along with improved software for “handing off” calls when a user moves between hotspots, promise to provide reliable coverage areas that equal or surpass existing cellular footprints — eventually.
Several wireless network companies, including TowerStream, Tropos Networks, and CitySpace, are laying the groundwork for wide-area wVoIP infrastructures. TowerStream, for example, recently wrapped up a one-month trial near its Middletown, Rhode Island, headquarters that allowed VoIP traffic to pass seamlessly between several Wi-Fi access points without dropping the call. The company now has volunteer testers in New York evaluating its system to see if it can provide seamless roaming and reliable connections with VoIP, conventional telephones, and cell phones in a heavily populated urban environment.
Dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones, which would offer cheap calls inside hotspots and reliable coverage everywhere else, are being developed by Motorola, Nokia, and other companies but probably won’t be widely available until sometime next year. Down the road, wVoIP could also be integrated into an array of mobile gadgets, including personal audio players, still and video cameras, and even handheld games. “If that comes about,” predicts Yahil, “the Wi-Fi phone will replace the cell phone.”