Mobile operators disable VoIP features

Orange and Vodafone come under fire as they stop the use of SIP — the enabling protocol behind VoIP — on Nokia's N95 handset

O2 has strongly criticised rival operators Orange and Vodafone over their decision to remove VoIP functionality from Nokia's N95 handset, claiming that such a move causes a "bad customer experience".

The feature-rich Nokia N95 supports SIP, which enables integrated IP telephony capabilities, a service that business users are increasingly demanding. However, Orange and Vodafone have disabled that feature on their N95 handsets.

James Tagg, chief executive of Truphone, which provides VoIP clients for mobile handsets, told ZDNet UK on Thursday that Orange and Vodafone's decision was anti-competitive and "causes problems to the market".

"We would like the phones to be released without things locked down on them that reduce consumer choice," said Tagg, adding that: "If PCs were sold in this way, all the exciting stuff that's happened with Web 2.0 would never have happened." He also suggested that handset subsidies were part of the problem, adding: "If Microsoft or Dell said they were going to [sell subsidised PCs], but they were going to be locked [to a limited range of services], everyone would go ballistic."

Tagg also insisted that, despite publishing a YouTube video protesting against the operators' move, Truphone had only reacted after its customers posted "a whole bunch of blogs" pointing out the problem. The VoIP company has recommended that its users buy the N95 unlocked, despite the fact that the handset costs as much as £630 without operator subsidies.

A spokesperson for O2, which, like T-Mobile, has released the N95 with its VoIP capabilities intact, said on Thursday that VoIP is "an opportunity, not a threat. It is not unreasonable for customers to expect to use all the features they have paid for".

"To disable certain capabilities without informing consumers will inevitably cause a bad customer experience, and therefore [it is] something we would want to avoid," the spokesperson added.

A spokesperson for Orange said it was "not Orange's policy to remove VoIP functionality from devices. This is a handset-specific issue and, in this particular instance, Orange was asked by Nokia whether they wanted the VoIP functionality switched on or off, and Orange selected off". Orange said that SIP is enabled on its release of Nokia's E60.

Vodafone takes a different view. "Vodafone currently does not offer a VoIP proposition that would allow its customers to have universal access to telephony services. Vodafone believes that VoIP over mobile is not yet a mature service proposition, doesn't have guaranteed quality of service, and does not provide the customer experience demanded of any service we launch," a spokesperson for the mobile operator said on Thursday.  "There is a misleading perception that VoIP services are 'free'. This is, however, not the case when it comes to using VoIP over mobile, where customers... may incur further charges."

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, looks unlikely to intervene. A spokesperson for the regulator told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the regulator was unlikely to step in on the grounds of anti-competitive behaviour as "there is no regulatory requirement to provide VoIP on a network, [because] there is sufficient competition in the mobile market to ensure that, if customers want VoIP, VoIP will be provided".