VoIP shakes mobile to the core

By the time you read this, Skype CEO Josh Silverman will have kicked off the conference sessions at the Summit this morning. It will be interesting to see if he gets the same reception that Google chief Eric Schmidt got at the Mobile World Congress - which is to say, an odd but potent blend of admiration and hostility from a telecom base that sees web-based companies like Google and Skype as interlopers trying to disrupt and undermine their business.

Granted, the telecom sector is more accepting of VoIP these days, though not necessarily to the point of welcoming over-the-top players like Skype into the voice business. The mobile space has been even less enthusiastic about VoIP, either as a competitor to its core cash cow or as a bandwidth hog on 3.5 networks. 

But Skype has been working to change that, citing November figures from its partnership with 3 UK showing that mobile Skype clients not only reduce cellco churn, but also actually boost traditional voice and SMS usage rather than cannibalize it. Verizon Wireless was convinced enough to sign a deal with Skype earlier this year

Whether more cellcos are willing to follow suit remains to be seen, especially now that Skype has launched a new iPhone client that enables calls over 3G, for which Skype will eventually charge money. Cellcos that already block mobile VoIP on general principle may see that as a further threat, while others may see it as a revenue-sharing opportunity waiting to happen.

Either way, a number of market analysts have declared mobile VoIP as an inevitability that cellcos will have to acknowledge sooner or later - and probably the former. Ovum principal analyst Steven Hartley says blocking VoIP is "like trying to control the tides", and cellcos that block it will only get negative publicity for their troubles. Juniper Research is forecasting 100 million VoIP users by 2012, and with most of that traffic running over Wi-Fi instead of 3G, cellcos would be better off forging alliances with VoIP players.

One interesting angle to all this is that VoIP's impact on the mobile business isn't just about business models. It's also a question of voice quality. 

What Skype may lack in quality of service guarantees regarding latency, it makes up for in audio fidelity. Its SILK voice codec has brought FM-radio quality to voice calls over Wi-Fi. The 3G version promises CD-quality voice. Mobile operators that have been getting away with sub-fixed line voice quality for years now have to compete with that. 

The good news is they have the technology - so called high-definition (HD) voice via the AMR-WB (AMR-wideband) codec standardized by the ITU as G.722.2. But implementation has been slow for a number of reasons, from battery life impact to IPR royalties and lack of handset support until very recently. Now, with mobile VoIP raising the bar, cellcos may be prepared to evaluate HD voice more seriously, although they'll still have to deal with things like interoperability issues between networks and codecs, and the painful probability that even if they implement HD voice, they may be hard pressed to charge a premium for it. 

All of which is the latest example of disruptive Internet upstarts forcing traditional telecom players to up their game and rethink their strategies. And that's a good thing.