DoCoMo Wi-Fi Phone Shows Carriers' Hand
By Carlo Longino, Tue Jul 13 20:30:00 GMT 2004

NTT DoCoMo has formally announced its 3G/WLAN phone -- and has made it impossible to use on public hotspots.

The carrier first broke its plans in June, but held a press conference touting the handset, the N900iL, in Tokyo on Tuesday. The handset, made by NEC, also requires a particular NEC IP telephony server, which presumably hooks up to a network sold by DoCoMo or its parent NTT.

The phone can make voice calls over Wi-Fi inside offices, essentially acting as a wireless PBX extension, and also features an instant-messaging application with a presence function letting users check co-workers' availability. But not surprisingly, DoCoMo's made the phone somehow incompatible with any other Wi-Fi networks than those installed expressly for the device, though it said it was considering adding support for its M-Zone public hotspots.

The way the carrier's approaching Wi-Fi shows how operators perceive the technology at this point: as more of a menace than an ally. Even carriers that are building huge hotspot networks, like T-Mobile, are wary of Wi-Fi being used in any way that will erode their bread-and-butter mobile voice revenues -- or, at least, until they can find a way to adequately charge and bill for it.

DoCoMo is the only carrier to announce VoWi-Fi plans, and most every handset that's been announced as including Wi-Fi doesn't have built-in VOIP support (though it probably won't take outside developers, or somebody like Skype, to come up with software for it), since the motivation for it -- cheap, or even free, voice calls -- runs counter to carriers' desire for revenues.

Operators are going along with Wi-Fi data in handsets because not doing so would risk ceding the wireless data market to Wi-Fi only devices. Having Wi-Fi handsets offers carriers an opportunity to not only collect Wi-Fi charges from users, but also encourages their use of mobile data networks. It's not a question of Wi-Fi or 3G (or GPRS or EDGE), it's a question of getting the technologies to work in tandem, and carriers are beginning to recognize that, at least for data.

But voice is a trickier proposition, and until they can figure out a way to integrate VoWi-Fi with their cellular voice networks, carriers will follow DoCoMo and do their damndest (likely with the help of device manufacturers) to keep VOIP out of Wi-Fi handsets.