You got your VoIP on my broadband!

Life may be like a box of chocolates -- but telecoms right now is gearing up to be a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, as service providers seek increasingly novel ways to blend their offerings.

If you've travelled through America at all, you have probably come face to face with that delicious confectionery known as Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (if not, I recommend you head to your nearest American food importer and buy a case -- you're going to need it once you try one).

Now, I have no idea who Reese was or why they named a confectionery after him, but I do know that these candies -- which surround peanut butter with Hershey's chocolate and are making my mouth water just writing about them -- were once advertised using a popular campaign in which two people, enjoying their lunch as I am right now, would bump into each other.

The result, of course, was that said peanut butter and chocolate would end up smeared all over each other. One would look at the other and exclaim -you got peanut butter on my chocolate!" and the other would mock complain that -you got chocolate in my peanut butter!" (If you don't mind a little cheese with your peanut butter cups and have a few minutes to kill, drop by here, here, , here or here.

I'm sure many a marketroid slapped each other on the backs for thinking that one up, but all they had done was discover that peanut butter and chocolate, two very good-tasting foods, do actually taste even better when put together. Spin off the Reese's Pieces (basically, peanut butter-filled M&Ms), do some well-placed product sponsorship in a blockbuster like E.T., and you've got yourself an American icon.

It's lunchtime, so please forgive the food analogy as I stop thinking of chocolate and get to the point.

engin, a VoIP provider whose spelling and capitalisation could use a bit of work but nonetheless pioneered the market for VoIP, has this week announced that it is buying a 10.38 percent stake - not 10.37 percent or 10.39 percent, mind you, but 10.38 percent -- in Unwired, that lovely bunch of folks who raced Personal Broadband Australia (PBBA) into the market with a fixed wireless broadband solution several years ago.

Fixed wireless, of course, lets you connect to the Internet from anywhere you have enough room to plug in a little wireless modem. In the past, I've spoken with several people who used Unwired as a conduit to run a VoIP phone into their apartments, providing a fixed-line telephony equivalent (without the monthly fee) that lets them avoid having to install a fixed line at all. As a side bonus, the service provides a decent-speed Internet connection.

This is great technology, although it's only available in a few cities. However, Unwired has rapidly been facing a crisis as larger WiMax players -- in particular, most recently, OPEL -- come into the market with more cash, and broader network ambitious, than Unwired could ever hope for. Although Unwired has rights to some very important radiofrequency spectrum, it just hasn't had the critical mass or the range of services necessary to make itself relevant to the general population.

engin, meanwhile, has all the components in place to deliver large-scale VoIP services -- but no network to deliver them over. The net result has been that while its boxes work a treat, they've also been subject to quality issues due to the wild fluctuations in bandwidth that are possible over the low-speed Internet connections that most of us have.

I should know: last year, I used engin's service for six months to keep a local Australian number while living in Singapore. It worked pretty well, but had this annoying tendency to drop out just when something really important was being said. But it did save me from having to shell out megabucks for a local Singapore service -- something that's not as easy to come by as you might expect.

Important to note is that engin is buying the stake in Unwired, and not the other way around. That's because VoIP is fast on the way to becoming ubiquitous, but network connectivity is only as good as the services running over it. Unwired, which was revolutionary for its time but now faces obsolescence at the hands of every HSDPA-enabled mobile phone currently flying into the marketplace, needed this lifeline.

By bringing together its VoIP services with a network whose performance characteristics can be more carefully controlled, engin has made an astute, logical, and potentially extremely rewarding move that can only increase its position in the marketplace further. Expect further consolidation between mid-tier VoIP players and network access start-ups in the months to come: PBBA, Big Air, Clever Communications and the like all have networks out there, but would benefit from the reliability of a VoIP service from Gotalk, Exetel, Fonebox (or the myriad other VoIP providers currently in the market.

Fixed-line ISPs like Internode, iiNet and TPG figured out this was a good combination a long time ago, but the combination of VoIP and wireless is an even more promising solution because it does away with the need to pay monthly fees for a fixed phone line.

It's kind of like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup without the calories. And I reckon Australia's going to like it. Do you?