My Next Phone

I have been doing some thinking about what kind of phone I upgrade to. I currently have a Siemens Gigaset and a Sony Ericsson P900. One for at calling from home via VoIP and one for roaming on cellular networks. The market has changed a great deal since I last bought a phone. Last time it was simply a case of buying the latest mobile and a decent landline handset.

I now make most of my calls from home since via Sip Discount. I have free calls to most of the worlds landlines. One thing inhibiting me using this service more is the lack of phone book synchronisation between OS X Address book and my Gigaset. I had placed an order for a Cisco 9760 deskphone but that relied on me loading up 3rd party software to browse my LDAP directory for numbers and generally seemed like a lot of hassle. Also I would have subsequently had to invest another 100€ in a bluetooth headseat to be able to use this phone around the house. After some thinking, reading horror stories about finding compatible firmware, and Cisco’s lack of support to private customers, I cancelled my order.

I am pleased I did. Interestingly phones are now appearing on the market that appear to bridge the gap between mobile and landline. The key to this is the nascent VoIP industry. These new phones come with the ability to run (although not installed by default) a SIP client allowing my to connect to any VoIP provider via their, also now included, 802.x wireless ethernet interface. A good example of these is the new Nokia E61 handset.

I am sure this gives the carriers the creeps more than they would like to admit in their current round of press releases, but for the end consumer it opens up all sorts of possibilities. I can now, from any open access point, make a call via my voip provider without paying a cent to my wireless carrier. Calling back to England while walking around Munich is now 0 cents/minute instead of 3€/minute. I can now use my cellphone at home to make calls and it’s directory of contacts is updated from my desktop.

For a long time I struggled to have my mobile receive and make calls over bluetooth. One should in theory be able to run a SIP client on existing phones and send the VoIP call to a bluetooth access point and then out to a VoIP provider on the net. There are 3 problems I came across when trying to get this working properly. Firstly, as far as I can tell, the carriers/handset manufacturers either blocked, didn’t enable or do not expose an API to their microphone and speaker from sofware. If they do it is fairly basic and only allows one to play back and record sounds. Secondly, dialing using the address book does not seem possible. Thirdly, the software on the receiving end of my phone’s bluetooth channel, chan_bluetooth, is no longer being actively developed.

These new phones claim to do exactly what I have been trying to get working for the last year. Although they use wireless ethernet instead of bluetooth. If they work as claimed, I could be travelling on business and making my callls back home via the hotel wireless network saving a bundle.

I foresee this next generation of phones putting forcing the carriers to look harder at how they charge customers for calls. Users are waking up to the fact that the marginal cost of a call has trended towards 0c/minute. If a user can make the majority of their calls without touching their carrier’s cell network they save money and the carrier recoups none of their huge investment on their network.

Carriers will, as their reputation proves, try to regulate away this competition through burdens like taxes on VoIP calls and when these prove ineffective, their pricing models will start to change. Instead of per-minute charges, we will start seeing data charges and carriers persuading users to make their SIP calls via their (probably more reliable) wireless data networks.

And there is more bad news resulting from these hadsets for the carriers. Today we see customers only ordering a landline to get DSL. There is very little money to be made in running copper around a city when your customers don’t make calls through you. The operator who just provides a pipe has lost out. Just as the landline telephone operators have been marginalized by DSL and all the services this brings, so too will the cellular carriers be marginalized unless they can keep their network completely closed. These new phones show they cannot.

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