Buyer's Guide to Mobile VoIP Services
Voice over IP (VoIP) on mobile devices looks set to explode over the next few years. It's been on the enterprise radar screen for some time now, but with improved 3G (and eventually 4G) networks and the advent of low cost handhelds with Wi-Fi capabilities the barriers to mobile VoIP implementation are crumbling at a staggering pace.
Mobile Management by Cutting Call CostsOne of the benefits of mobile VoIP is reduced call costs when making international calls, roaming abroad, or when calling to numbers that are not included in bundled minutes. If cutting call costs is your primary motivation for looking at mobile VoIP then one possible strategy is to encourage employees with mobile devices to use a consumer VoIP service on their smartphones. This can be done using the Skype client available for the iPhone and Microsoft Windows Mobile devices, or by using a standard SIP client. These are available for every smartphone platform and are integrated into some handsets -- notably Nokia's E series phones.
Mobile VoIP Without Wi-FiMost mobile VoIP apps in the past were designed to work over Wi-Fi. This places serious limitations on where they can be used and on which phones can use them. It can also be a serious drain on the handset's battery. However, in theory you don't need a Wi-Fi handset to use Skype anymore under the new Verizon-Skype alliance. Verizon just teamed up with Skype to allow Skype calls over its 3G network (from the end of March 2010) using a VoIP client called Skype Mobile. It runs on the BlackBerry Storm 9530, Storm2 9550, Curve 8330, Curve 8530, 8830 World Edition, and Tour 9630, Motorola's Android Droid and Devour, and HTC's Droid Eris. Additionally, AT&T gave a green light to VoIP applications (such as Skype, or standard SIP clients) over its data network on the iPhone late last year.
In practice, though, VoIP over 3G may not be as attractive as it appears at first glance: 3G network coverage can be patchy, and AT&T's network in particular struggles with all the data traffic that its iPhones generate, so it remains to be seen how well VoIP over 3G will actually work if large numbers of people start using it. The idea of enterprises making use of consumer services may seem odd, but it can make perfect business sense, according to Evan Kirchheimer, enterprise telecoms principal analyst at research house Ovum. "It's increasingly common to see employee-owned phones in the enterprise, so why shouldn't employees use the VoIP that they use at home service on their phone? " he told EnterpriseMobileToday.com. For many enterprises it may well be cheaper to give employees an allowance of, say, $100 per month, and make them responsible for their own call plans and phones, he suggests. They would then be far more likely to use VoIP when possible to avoid incurring high costs. "By doing this organizations can get rid of all their expenses relating to mobile management, telecoms expense management and so on," he adds. An alternative to this consumer VoIP approach for companies looking to cut call costs is simply to establish a corporate account with an enterprise VoIP service provider. To use this service, all employees will need is a SIP client on their mobile device configured to use the service. An advantage of this approach is that the service can then usually be centrally managed, and call patterns monitored, from an administrator Web console.
But the prospect of lower call charges is only a small part of the appeal of mobile VoIP for enterprises that already use IP-based telephony, according to Peter Gradwell, managing director of enterprise VoIP provider Gradwell. "The benefits include cost-savings, (but also) integration with existing phone systems and increased mobility for business calls -- especially for those who are often away from the office or work from numerous locations and therefore require a more flexible communications system," he says. Configuring a mobile device's SIP client to connect to a corporate PBX (or a hosted Centrex-style offering) turns the device into a standard IP phone on the enterprise telephone network. That means the user can call colleagues using short dial numbers, access the corporate phone directory, set up conference calls and use the corporate voicemail system just as if they were sitting at their desk and using a fixed IP phone. It also enables users to be contacted on the mobile device using the same phone number as their desk phone. In terms of cost savings, calls to internal extensions are free, while external calls are routed through the corporate PBX and incur the same charges as calls that originate from desk phones. (It's common for PBXs to be connected to the PSTN for local calls, and also to a VoIP provider for toll calls. Skype is also involved in this through its Skype for Business service, which allows enterprise users to make external calls via their IP PBX using Skype's network -- at Skype's SkypeOut rates -- and to receive calls from Skype users.)