VoIP mobiles are a call for change

Operators are falling over themselves to embrace Nokia's Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phone, but this diminutive device is actually a major threat to their status quo

At the mighty 3GSM show in Barcelona this week, Nokia launched the diminutive 6136. The interesting thing about this phone is the built-in Wi-Fi. We'll be seeing a lot more of this over the coming year, shortly in Nokia's business-oriented E Series phones and later no doubt devices from other phone manufacturers.

On the face of it — and on Nokia's press release — it looks like just another cosy development that will give users an extra feature and operators a new mode of delivering services.

But flip the lid and another picture emerges; one of devices manufacturers getting fed up with operator protectionism, and operators getting paranoid about threats to their existing models — at precisely the time when they need to find new revenue streams to pay back those pricey 3G licences.

Obviously Wi-Fi lacks many of the features that allow GSM networks to provide seamless, reliable and high quality services across the country and internationally. But they do have one benefit that should not be underestimated; they are free from the shackles of the mobile network operators. Even Nokia executives privately relish this idea.

For now the operators will not be unduly worried; some, such as Deutsche Telecom, may have blocked VoIP traffic on their mobile networks citing the entirely justifiable position that it simply doesn't make sense for anyone to want to do that anyway. But there will be an increasing number of applications where VoIP in mobile phones does begin to make sense.

With an IP PBX (and a VoIP client on the phone) you have the capability to make this a genuine replacement desktop phone for instance, running VoIP on your corporate wireless network.

And the addition of a SIP client would enable companies with an international presence to save significantly on call charges. If you're in Australia and you dial a UK number, the client can intercept the call and route to a local (Australian) access point, thence to be routed over a leased line or IP network to the UK PBX, and then through to the dialled number. You only pay the cost of a local call.

As ever, it will require a sublime user experience to really take off but the economics are, arguably, already there. Last month we saw the first signs of progress towards SIM-based Wi-Fi authentication standards being published for GSM and 3G devices. If they win the backing of the industry, then the possibilities would really be something to write home about.

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