David Pogue, the gadget-maven at the New York Times, went to a cell phone conference in Italy last week, and learned a few home truths.
On Independence Day he wrote a column that lambasted the US cellular carriers for their conservatism, and the following day he eulogized T-Mobile for deploying UMA. The UMA writeup is a PR flack’s dream. All true, too.
In the column on the calcification of the US cellular carriers, he indulged in a bit of wishful thinking:
If the iPhone becomes a hit, then, it could wind up loosening the carriers’ stranglehold on innovation.
Seasoned denizens of this industry may scoff, but it must be possible. And while UMA strives to exploit the VoIP genie while still keeping it in the bottle, at least its another step in the right direction. In the column on UMA, Pogue made a prediction that I happen to agree with:
But hard to believe though it may be, T-Mobile did make an announcement last week. And even harder to believe, its new product may be as game-changing as Appleâ€™s.
The Wall Street Journal has already made the observation that the network operators don’t necessarily have their subscribers best interests at heart. But these two events in the same week may mark some kind of a turning point. I hope they do.
***Update: I went to the T-Mobile store this morning and signed up. The service here in Dallas is $10 per month, not $20 as reported by Reuters. The store manager also told me that people with poor cellular reception at home can use the UMA service at no additional monthly charge, but that this usage is treated the same way as cellular usage – in other words, it counts against your cellular minutes.***
***Update 2: Here are some details on the T-Mobile launch campaign. ***
Reuters reported this morning that T-Mobile is rolling out FMC service nationally.
Subscribers would pay an extra fee of up to $19.99 per line or $29.99 for five lines on top of regular monthly cellular bills for unlimited calls in a subscriber’s home or the nearly 8,500 places T-Mobile runs Wi-Fi, like Starbucks coffee shops.
This pricing model seems ambitious, compared to what it is competing with. T-Mobile’s MyFaves 300 plan gives you unlimited minutes nights and weekends and unlimited minutes to a list of five people that you choose. So the 300 minutes are consumed during the day, calling to people whom you call infrequently. For $20 more you can bump this to 1,000 minutes. Alternatively, you can spend that $20 on the FMC service. It seems like the FMC service would only be a better deal for people who are home all day (or at Starbucks), who want to talk a lot to people beyond their five most frequently called. MyFaves 1000 would be a better deal for people who want to talk to a large variety of people during the day when they are not at home, for example in the car or out of range of a Starbucks – like at work, for example.
So who are these people that this “HotSpot@Home” service is aimed at? Surely there can’t be many. Why doesn’t T-Mobile use this technology to gain more customers, by giving it away free to subscribers? This would appeal to all the people who have poor reception at home, who would feel bilked by having to pay extra just for acceptable quality of service there (Hey! They do! See the update above). Another way to increase customer appeal would be to go with a wideband codec for Wi-Fi calls, guaranteeing CD-quality sound to Wi-Fi on-network calls. Or why not do both? This would provide a viral motivation to complement MyFaves, it would be unique among US carriers, it would improve retention, and it would bring new subscribers to start exploiting all that spectrum that T-Mobile picked up in the AWS auction in September 2006.
Reuters ran a story today from the FMC World Congress in Amsterdam.
The article cites very weak consumer uptake leading to the cancellation of T-Mobile’s T-One service in Germany, and weak uptake also at Neuf Cegetel. It seems strangely unbalanced, since it doesn’t mention T-Mobile’s imminent national rollout of FMC in the USA, the BT/Vodafone Fusion service and the FT/Orange Unik service. There are several other UMA deployments that would have made the outlook seem less gloomy.
The T-Mobile service was survived in Germany by T-Com’s similar service, Telekom-Vorteil, a “fixed/Wi-Fi” service that routes wireline calls over Wi-Fi, so you can use a Wi-Fi phone or the Wi-Fi of your dual mode phone to pick up calls on your home number when you are at home. This is not UMA based, and drops the call when you move out of Wi-Fi range. People like it.
Today’s Wall Street Journal has a good article about T-Mobile’s UMA trial in Seattle. It says that T-Mobile may be rolling it out nationally as early as next month, despite some trial particpants’ complaints about handoff and battery life issues. T-Mobile will be offering a home router to help with QoS and battery life. I presume that for the battery life this is just WMM Power Save (802.11e APSD) since that is what the phones in the trial (Samsung T709 and Nokia 6136) support. For QoS side I expect these APs will support WMM (802.11e EDCF), but they could also support some proprietary QoS on the WAN access link, the way that the AT&T CallVantage routers do, which would be interesting.
There is some background on the trial here.
The article goes on to put the trial into the context of other FMC deployments, from BT Fusion, Telecom Italia and Orange. The article quotes a Verizon Wireless spokesman saying that they aren’t convinced that Wi-Fi can deliver high enough voice quality to carry Verizon branded calls. This is amusing bearing in mind the usual quality of a cellular call in a residence.
The article also quotes Frank Hanzlik, the head of the Wi-Fi Alliance as saying that business FMC may have more potential than consumer. I agree.
In-Stat has just published a report called “Wi-Fi for Voice: Consumer Research Around Wi-Fi Phones.”
The report finds that consumers are unenthused about Wi-Fi-only phones, which is not exactly news. This is of course not a strike against VoWLAN, since everybody will be using VoWLAN on their cell phones in just a few years.
Reuters picked up on one little sentence buried in a Nokia press release entitled “Nokia Demonstrates Leadership in Technologies for Internet on Mobile Devices at Web 2.0 Expo.” The relevant paragraph, in its entirety, reads:
“Nokia Shows Commitment to WiMAX as Web 2.0 Enabler
“Nokia is dedicating significant research, development and intellectual property to WiMAX and supports efforts in making it a global broadband standard. The combination of WiMAX broadband technology and Web 2.0 services offers people an enriched high-speed Internet experience free from the desktop PC. Nokia plans to bring its first WiMAX enabled mobile device to market in early 2008.”
With no apparent evidence, the headline of the Reuter’s story mentioned the word “phone,” and the Internet echo chamber commenced to spawn dozens of stories saying that Nokia is going to release a WiMAX phone in 2008. Actually it looks more as though they are talking about an Internet Tablet like their N800, which is much less exciting.
A Nokia phone based on WiMAX would either have to have a regular cellular radio for the voice channel, or it would use WiMAX for voice. A phone that uses WiMAX for voice would most likely be aimed at a wireless Internet provider that doesn’t have a cellular network, for example ClearWire in the USA. This would put a date on their anticipated entry into mobile voice over WiMAX to compete with the incumbent cellular operators.
But that’s not what the press release says.
In-Stat recently published a report on FMC. It shows most people still relatively uninterested in running voice on increasingly pervasive Wi-Fi networks, though PBX users are intrigued by the potential of dual-mode phones.
Potentially VoIP calls can sound radically better than what we are used to even on landline phones. So why don’t they? It may be lack of will. Some say the success of the mobile phone industry proves that people don’t care about sound quality on their calls. I don’t think this is a valid inference. All it proves is that people value mobility higher than sound quality.
The telephonic journey from mouth to ear, often thousands of miles in tens of milliseconds, traverses a chain of many weak links, each compounding the impairment of the sound. First, the phone. Whether it’s a headset, a desk phone or a PC, the microphone and speakers have to be capable of transmitting the full frequency spectrum of the human voice without loss, distortion or echo. Second the digital encoding of the call; it has to be done with a wideband codec. Third, the codec has to be end-to-end, so no hops through the circuit switched phone network. Finally the network must convey the media packets swiftly and reliably, since delayed packets are effectively lost, and lost packets reduce sound quality.
Discussions of VoIP QoS normally dwell mainly on the last of these factors, but the others are at least as important. The exciting thing about dual-mode cell phones is that they provide a means to cut through them. Because they must handle polyphonic ring tones and iPod-type capabilities, the speakers on most cell phones can easily carry the full frequency range of the human voice. Cell phone microphones can also pick up the required range, and DSP techniques can mitigate the physical acoustic design challenges of the cell phone form factor. Smart phone processors have the oomph to run modern wideband codecs. This leaves the issue of staying on the IP network from end-to-end. The great thing about dual-mode phones is that they can connect directly to the Internet in the two places where most people spend most of their time: at work and at home.
So if you and the person you are talking to are both in a Wi-Fi enabled location, and you both have a dual mode cell phone, your calls should not only be free, but the sound should be way better than toll quality.
Check out the V2oIP website for an industry initiative on this topic.