Will Skype bring mobile VoIP to the masses? I have a dream…

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I have a dream that one day the mobile nation will rise up and cast off the shackles of the networks. I have a dream that one day phone contracts will drop below the £5 per month mark. I have a dream that one day we will all see each other when we talk. I have a dream that my little children will be able to use their mobiles the world over without suffering a penny of roaming charges. I have that dream, but I’m not sure that dream is VoIP.

Today we heard that Skype is to launch on the iPhone 3G and BlackBerry in the coming weeks. According to Skype Chief Operating Officer Scott Durchslag, it was the number one request from customers, and I can’t help wondering why? Let’s ignore the oversized elephant in the room that is the fact that this isn’t the first time using your Skype credentials for mobile VoIP on the iPhone has been possible (see Nimbuzz, TruPhone and Fring). Let’s also forget that there’s already other mobile VoIP services that people could have been using instead on other handsets (see Vyke, Tesco Talk WiFi, etc). What I want to know is how much of a difference will the mass use of mobile VoIP make should mobile Skype be its saviour? Will it bring me closer to my dream?

If the initial reaction of most mobile networks is anything to go by, the answer would almost certainly be yes. There’s been huge resistance by most carriers to allow mobile VoIP on their supplied handsets with the only exception being 3 and their two Skype phones. The chief concern is, of course, that their call charge and possibly text revenue will drop through the floor with all this free IM and talk time but there are a few things still remaining on the side of the networks as has already been shown by 3’s success with their VoIP handsets.

First up, and most importantly, is data. To use VoIP, you have to use the internet and that means mobile data use which, as we know, is fast becoming the next cash cow for the service providers. Some offer “unlimited” bolt-on packages, some 500MB or so but the point is that you’re still effectively paying for your calls. At the end of the day, it’s up to them how much they charge for data and, if they start losing voice call money, I’m sure they’ll protect their revenues accordingly.

Next up is the issue of roaming charges. The quickest of thoughts on the matter might make you think that mobile VoIP could cause the end of those too but just because you’re not using a foreign network for voice calls, doesn’t mean that you can use their data for free. I’m not going to scare you with the figures but suffice to say roaming data charges are in a different league to calls and SMS.

Of course, there is one saviour for the consumer and that’s Wi-Fi. Hotspots and friendly routers of the world will allow you to use the internet and bypass the carriers data charges. This is the thing they’re afraid of the most. Now, so far, this hasn’t been a massive problem for them largely because there just aren’t that many public hotspots and most of them you have to pay for anyway whether through services like the Cloud or payment in kind through Starbucks coffee.

So, if you’re having to pay for it anyway, then why not just pay the network? The other issue is, of course, that tracking down a hotspot when you want to make a call is exactly the type of pain in the arse that the mobile phone was invented to avoid. I would say the only time and place most people would make that kind of effort would be to avoid roaming charges but it’ll be even harder to find Wi-Fi abroad where you may or may not speak the language and they may or may not have a healthy attitude to embracing technology.

So, it doesn’t look like we’re going to pay much less each month for our phones, roaming charges will still be an issue and that only leaves me with one dream, which may have seemed an odd one to begin with, the dream of seeing each other when we speak. I’m talking, of course, about video calls.

I’ve got a whole other piece in the pipeline on this one but, as analyst Ben Wood has pointed out, if Skype introduces video calls to their BlackBerry and iPhone apps, then suddenly we have a direct visual link between the mobile phones and laptops of this world.

We make video calls over our computers. It’s easy to see how people will end up receiving a lot of accidental video calls on their mobiles when the caller might not think about where it is the other person is signed into Skpe, and it’s not a long way from there to people actually getting used to doing it all the time. The idea may not appeal to you but there’s a very good chance it might still catch on.

There is one final benefit of the Skype launch. If this service really does spell a rush of consumers to mobile VoIP, then we’re going to have a lot more demand on the 3G network in terms of both coverage and capacity.

As it stands, consumers don’t stretch mobile internet use nearly enough for the networks to deem it worthwhile investing in increasing the bandwidth. VoIP may not take a hell of a lot of data but the sheer volume of traffic and a struggling 3G service might be enough to convince the carriers that it’s time for the next generation of data service speeds. HD video streaming on the hoof, here we come.

Daniel Sung

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