Operators and Mobile VoIP - the battle intensifies

While Europe has been the torch-bearer of mobile VoIP services in terms of revenue, Asia-Pac is set to overtake Europe by 2013 and become the largest region as this fast-growing user base adopts more dual-mode handsets.

Overall, according to a recent study conducted by In-Stat, by 2013 well over 50 per cent of the near 300 million VoIP users will be associated with mobile providers as total annual revenues creep over US$35 billion.

This sector has been given a further boost with the news that the Symbian^1 OS will now support Skype and is available from Nokia's Ovi store. The app works over Wi-Fi and 3G and will allow users of a select number of Nokia handsets to make free calls as well as IM, text messages, MMS and video sharing. Skype said that it would shortly upgrade the app so that it would work on Symbian mobiles from other manufacturers, including Sony Ericsson.

However, this announcement was spoiled by O2 stating that mobile VoIP calls were not allowed as part of the company's unlimited data services. "In the case of unlimited data services such as our data bolt on and iPhone tariffs, VoIP is prohibited within the excessive use policy," clarified a spokesman.

The company added that its unlimited data packages were designed to allow customers to browse the web and access data services such as email without worrying about a cost per megabyte.

"To offer the best possible customer experience, we prohibit continuous streaming of any audio/video content, Voice over IP, P2P and file sharing services, all of which can adversely impact the overall customer experience," said O2, perhaps sensitive to the recent collapse of its 3G network in London due to smartphone data traffic.

Speaking at the giant CeBIT show in Hannover, and without directly referring to O2's rebuff, Russ Shaw, general manager of Skype's mobile services, said that operators must be wary of becoming too confrontational over the issue of apps. "The mobile network is now app centric," said Shaw. "[Network providers] must see that the best apps drive demand, and not restrict customers in what apps they can choose."

Clearly viewing Skype as little more than an ‘app', Shaw disagreed that Skype was a threat to mobile networks. "We've enabled a lot of conversations that wouldn't have happened otherwise. We've created a market that hasn't existed previously. Customers who use Skype spend more on MMS, SMS, and there's less churn."

In an attempt to reassure operators, Shaw stressed that his company was not interested in stealing subscribers. "Let me be clear, Skype doesn't want to own the subscriber."

I guess both sides of this long-running argument can justify their position. The operator doesn't want to be pushed in the direction of being a dump pipe, and the mobile VoIP service providers see the world of voice calls migrating towards 3G and desperately want to be part of it.

Perhaps as networks evolve to LTE, data capacity will be less of an issue, and operators might just see VoIP as something necessary to tolerate--and be pleased to take whatever revenue it generates.-Paul