Thursday, October 04, 2007

Voice over data, and the future of telephony

Rather quietly, this week RIM announced the BlackBerry Curve 8320, a dual-mode phone. It supports the Tmobile GSM network, but it also adds wi-fi. Not a big deal, you might think. The iPhone has wi-fi as well, so do many smartphones.

The difference is that this device can switch to wi-fi for voice calls. Not just data. Voice...

That means you can sign up for T-Mobile Hotspot@Home ($10/month) and call for "free" when you are at home, in the office, at a Starbucks, in the airport, when you are traveling abroad... Without changing your number. Your cell phone will ring when they call you.

The technology behind this is called UMA. Tmobile acts as a gateway between your phone and the GSM network (that is, the phone gets an IP from your home router, then talks to a T-Mobile server, which routes the call). That's why you have to pay them the $10 per month.

If you have ever traveled with a BlackBerry, you know how expensive it is to call home from an hotel or a conference. Ten bucks go in a few minutes... Now, in all those places you have wi-fi. With $10/month, all your calls are included. You just have to sign-up to the hotspot where you are.

I am ready to bet that all CFOs on the planet are preparing to force their employees to take the new device and have them use it with wi-fi, at least at home and in the office, where the majority of the calls happen... It will be a huge saving.

Although it came in quietly, this is a big turning point in the market. Data is now used for voice. It is the start of a new era. Data will be ubiquitous. Blending voice as a data element makes data king.
A number of very interesting applications will emerge out of this.

There is a competing option to UMA, which is also quite interesting. It is called femtocell (for the geeks out there, femto is just a bit smaller than pico, which is smaller than nano, which is smaller than micro, and so on). It is a very very small cell, that you put in your house or office and connect to the Internet. In practical terms, it is like having a cell tower in your house, giving you five bars on your cellphone. Sprint has launched a trial on it, called AIRAVE. You get a small box in your house, plug into your Internet router and voila', you get great signal coverage. In your house, calls are routed from you normal mobile phone to the AIRAVE, then to a Sprint server via Internet. When you walk away from the house, your cellphone switches automatically from you own small cell to the tower cell. Sprint is charging $15/month for the service (unlimited nationwide calls), plus $49.99 for the device.

Just based on my gut feeling, I like UMA better... Femtocell gives me the impression I am paying my carrier to improve their network coverage, because it sucks in my house. They should have a better cell tower ;-) And I am not getting any advantage in a hotel, bar or even in the office. I can use my current phone, which is nice, but I am planning to change my phone every 18 months like everyone else. And the next device I get is definitely going to be data capable and have wi-fi, so... Femtocell seems like a stop-gap solution and, therefore, it might not last very long.

In any case, the future of mobile telephony looks very interesting. Wow, it is all changing so fast...