Mobile VoIP gaining headway, despite operator reluctance

T-Mobile UK's decision to launch a mobile VoIP trial is notable in how the company is attempting to position the service to attract more customers.

The CleverConnect application is focused on deciding the best way for friends and family to stay in touch using mobile VoIP calls via Wi-Fi or 3G. The clever part is that the app supposedly chooses the cheapest routing to make the call. (T-Mobile USA has a similar service, called Bobsled, which has more than one million users.)

Note that T-Mobile doesn't say the calls are free, and the trial could be more about testing whether CleverConnect attracts users to adopt T-Mobile as its service provider.

Other UK operators have trialled mobile VoIP services, although little seems to have happened since--with the exception of 3 UK.

Elsewhere in Europe, the technology seems to be gaining ground. O2 Germany with its Global Friends service, and separately Vodafone Netherlands and Orange Spain having signed agreements with VoIP developer Truphone.

But mobile operators have been less than enthusiastic about supporting VoIP given the ongoing decline in their traditional voice revenues, and have instigated a number of tactics--such as throttling--to restrict the appeal of mobile VoIP services.

This Canute-like resistance to mobile VoIP is understandable, but will ultimately fail as handsets supporting Wi-Fi and 3G become evermore commonplace, and consumers become aware of how VoIP can lower their monthly charges.

The market research firm Visiongain recently forecast that mobile VoIP users will exceed 180 million by 2016 generating $36 billion (€28.1 billion) in revenue. This growth will be spurred by innovations in smartphone design ranging from advanced user interface, acoustics to ergonomic design, the research firm said.

However, the Visiongain study is not shy in highlighting that mobile VoIP remains a regulated service and the operator's positioning around the service is far from being standardised. The report notes that regulation and security are two major milestones of a successful technology.

What might also worry VoIP advocates is the question of its survival in the face of increasing price competitiveness amongst operators and what any financial advantage VoIP might offer over existing tariffs.

To further illustrate the issue, data recently published by Strand Consult claimed that Skype's 124 million active users generated less than $1 billion in revenue. A mobile operator with a similar number of customers would, by comparison, be generating many billions of dollars in revenue--which provides some clue to the weird VoIP business model.

Two factors that seem likely to sway the arguments towards the success of VoIP are the ongoing deployment of LTE and the involvement of over-the-top players keen to take a further bite out of mobile operators' revenues.--Paul