Is The Vonage Wi-Fi Phone More About Convergence Or Divergence?
By Mike Masnick, Wed Jan 05 00:00:00 GMT 2005

Vonage is moving forward with one of the first consumer-focused VoIP Wi-Fi phones. The market it makes the most sense for, however, may surprise some people.

Most attempts at merging VoIP and Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) have been focused on the enterprise sector, where the offerings have mostly been crippled to protect existing mobile operator revenue plans. Of course, the real threat was never going to come from the operators themselves, but from outside sources. Vonage, the independent player who basically defined the telephone-based VoIP market, is making news again with its announced plans for a Wi-Fi phone that works on its VoIP service. This is different from most other offerings in that it's clearly focused on the consumer market. While it does look like a cellular phone, it doesn't have a tie-in to any cellular operator. Instead, it just operates in places where a Wi-Fi network is present, and uses the same Vonage account information.

While some are now speculating that such a phone will represent a threat to mobile operators, that seems unlikely. The benefits to such a phone are unlikely to outweigh the limitations for most people. It's only useful in some places. While battery life is surprisingly good, there are still plenty of questions about how such a device will be able to connect to fee-based or password protected Wi-Fi hotspots. Already plenty of people have trouble connecting their laptops to such hotspots, and going through the same process just to make a phone call seems like quite a hassle. The main benefits are cheaper phone calls -- but that only applies in situations where people don't have huge buckets of included minutes. One niche area where it could be useful, is for people who make a lot of international phone calls via their mobile phones -- but international calls on Vonage still cost money and cellular-to-VoIP bridges are another potential solution to the same problem -- and don't require the user to carry a separate phone.

That last point may be the most important. Most people who are likely to rush out and buy a VoWi-Fi phone from Vonage are the same types of people who already have a mobile phone. So, while this may look like a bit of convergence (bringing VoIP and Wi-Fi together), it actually seems more like divergence (forcing you to carry yet another device). A much more converged solution would be putting a VoIP softphone on a smartphone so the user could use the same device on whichever network seems more appropriate -- though this is likely to face resistance from operators.

That isn't to say the Vonage VoWi-Fi phone doesn't have some potential. It's just unlikely to be a serious problem for mobile operators any time soon. Where it could make sense is as a replacement for the adapters VoIP providers currently send out. These are usually boxes similar in size to a router (and, in many cases, they actually are a router), that subscribers need to daisy chain somehow into their own home network. Users who don't want to mess around with their home network may find the option of just using a Wi-Fi phone much more appealing, since it basically puts the adapter into the phone itself, though, security settings may again cause some problems. The fact that it can then be used remotely on other Wi-Fi networks is simply a bonus -- but not its main selling point. That, alone, should help the mobile operators rest easier for now.