VoWi-Fi Plus Cellular Equals Not All That Much
By Mike Masnick, Tue Aug 31 03:30:00 GMT 2004

In the last few months we've seen a few different offerings that combine a cellular phone with voice-over-Wi-Fi. Some are beginning to wonder why.

The announcements have received a lot of attention. NTT DoCoMo announced its combo phone to much fanfare just a few weeks before Motorola announced its own version. Many lapped the announcements up without looking at the details: both were somewhat crippled. While they were perfectly normal mobile phones, the Wi-Fi part lost out on many of the benefits of Wi-Fi. Rather than being compatible with any Wi-Fi network, both required special hardware, making it clear that this device was really just a mobile phone that switched to a wireless enterprise PBX when in range of the office. About the only initial benefit, then, is if you happened to work in a building that has poor mobile phone coverage.

It appears, though, that some are finally starting to question the overall value of combining VoWi-Fi with cellular voice. The major benefit touted is always that you can save money on voice calls, since they'll run over cheap (or free) VoIP networks, rather than expensive cellular networks. That would be true if anyone paid by the minute any more, rather than just having a huge bundle of minutes -- which is effectively a flat, monthly rate. There are, clearly, some niche areas where it may have potential. International callers and business travelers who are roaming outside of their cell phone network could obviously find some benefits (though, for travelers, it would require phones that work on more than just the office Wi-Fi). There may be some industry applications. Hospitals are used as an example, since many prohibit mobile phone use for fear of interference. However, recent research and requests from the doctors themselves suggest this is a precaution that is no longer necessary, and is likely to disappear relatively rapidly.

A bigger question may be why would the mobile operators allow unfettered access to something that moves minutes off their networks? Most operators are staying far away from such combo packages, and the ones who are willing to test the waters (like DoCoMo) are going with locked down plans. If the competition is strong, operators may be forced to open up -- but it's unlikely the competition will come from other carriers, who have no desire to push everyone towards such solutions. It is possible that competition could come from devices that were really designed as personal digital assistants more than phones, but which include Wi-Fi and some VoIP software. However, it will likely be quite some time before a carrier offers a truly open combo VoWi-Fi and cellular phone.

That doesn't mean Wi-Fi in a phone isn't useful, but it will be quite difficult to make the case for voice as the killer application that drives that combination. For voice over Wi-Fi on a mobile to catch on, it would need something special, above and beyond what a regular cellular phone could do. Instead, it seems much more likely that data applications, which don't take away voice minutes directly, are going to be what people find most useful. One area to watch, of course, will be new data applications that use voice as an element of the application -- but none of these combo devices seem to be designed to offer any such applications right now. A few years from now, of course, this whole debate may seem silly. The important thing is going to be the new, enabling applications and services -- not what protocol the voice application uses or what network the voice travels over.