The dream phone… plus a wee rant

Advances in telephony/communications are happening quickly. First we had the landline, then the mobile phone. The incumbent landline companies (like BT in the UK) were cursed for being slow to bring down prices and make new technology (like ISDN in the 1990’s) available at a reasonable cost. Then came in deregulation, more companies competing within the telecoms market, and then local loop unbundling (LLU).

Mobile phones were great when they came out — they gave a real sense of liberation. Finally you didn’t need to stay in to wait for a call — “just call me on my mobile phone”. However, coverage was patchy and call prices extortionate. Now network coverage is much better, and call charges generally lower, but prices are still quite high in many countries, especially when using international “roaming”. And it never felt fair to pay £1 a minute to receive a call. I mean, why not just have the phone ring and have a message telling you that it will cost you an arm and a leg to receive this call, and ask if you want to continue? Or even better, give a message to the caller telling them that the person they are trying to call is in another country and it will cost them both arms and legs to contact them? No, the truth wouldn’t be good PR for the phone companies would it now? Instead, the phone companies prefer to hide behind a smokescreen of complicated and unfathomable call charges that require a PhD in Mathematics and Cryptology to decode. Confuse the punters, that’s the way to fleece them!

Now Skype has arrived. Free calls to other Skype users. Great! And, you can call people’s landline numbers internationally for around 2 eurocents per minute for bulk traffic countries, which is remarkably cheap. Skype works by routing your call across the internet (cost free) and avoiding the public telephone network until reaching the destination country, whereupon it pops its head up and joins a landline operator’s network, thereby limiting the cost to that of a national or even local call within the destination country. However, you need to be using a computer with internet access for all this to work.

Apparently, using a PDA or laptop, it is possible within some cities to use your usual ISP logon account to access the internet from a WiFi hotspot and then you can use things like Skype to call people. You could even use a Bluetooth headset with your laptop so you can talk and listen to the other party. So, in my opinion, we’re not “quite there yet” as one needs to carry a laptop/PDA and be in a place where WiFi is available and be able to use our ISP account — and this normally limits us to the country where we have opened our ISP account. An update on this — a friend tells me that logging on to a WiFi hotspot with your ISP account incurs quite a hefty monthly charge. Damn!

I understand that there are new mobile phones being worked on at the moment which can use the usual mobile operator network, but if you are near your home landline it can automatically switch to use your IP router via bluetooth to continue the call. This should reduce call charges as you will avoid paying some of the higher mobile network operator’s call charges. But what if you are 1KM from your house, or 100KMs? Why not just use Skype to Skype for free if you’re home if possible? British Telecom’s “BT Fusion” service, previously named “Bluephone”, had a spectacular bug at launch which was that after initiating a call using a mobile operator’s network, after automatically switching to the domestic connection when in range, it failed to terminate the call on the mobile network, thus incurring an incorrect and potentially expensive call. BT, test your gear properly before launching it! That’s a serious and obvious bug! But things are progressing at least.

However, one day in the hopefully not too distant future, I dream of having a phone which uses VOIP for all calls. It would work by you gaining internet access through a global ISP with which you have a subscription. Access could be gained via either a WiFi hotspot or a mobile operator’s network at a pre-negotiated minimal fee (ha!). I suspect that mobile operator’s may continue to be greedy and that the result of this would be that WiFi access would be the preferred connection, if available.

If you live in a city, getting a “free ride” onto the internet via someone else’s “out-of-the-box” unprotected WiFi router is apparently quite easy, so if you have a phone/smartphone with WiFi capability, in theory, if Skype could run on your device, you should be able to get free Skype-to-Skype calls, and call landline for only 2 eurocents per minute to major telecom destination countries :)

Update: 03/01/2006

City-wide wi-fi rolls out in UK:

Each hotzone will turn broadband-speed internet into radio signals to allow people to surf the net, send e-mails, play online games and make cheap phone calls over wi-fi.

“Providing ubiquitous wireless broadband access, over a network that is available to millions of wi-fi devices, and will be available to the new generation of wi-fi phones, gaming devices and other applications will have a major impact on the way people communicate, work and play in city centres,” said George Polk, chief executive of The Cloud.

The hotzones will rival existing mobile phone networks.

Around 25 mobile phone handsets currently have wi-fi chips installed. Pressing a button on the phone allows users to bypass their own mobile phone network to connect to the internet and make cheap broadband phone calls.

Update: 07/02/2006

Global wi-fi plan gets $22m boost: Google, Skype & Fon are on the case — now we’re talking!

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