How long can operators ignore VoIP?

Some interesting VoIP plays are coming to market that could become quite an irritation for mobile operators and perhaps spur them to begin wrestling control from outside players.

Late last week, Google announced on its blog that it has begun to release a preview of Google Voice which gives subscribers a ten-digit phone number that links all of their various phone numbers--home, mobile, office--and rings them simultaneously to avoid voicemail phone tag. Google Voice will also enable users to make call for free to anywhere in the U.S. and will offer an SMS conversion feature that converts voice messages into text messages.

Speculation now turns to how this announcement affects Skype and the phone companies, with an emphasis that calls over the Internet will chip away at revenues from other players in the space. Mobile operators may not be immune either, especially as the Android platform might be a prime target for Google-branded VoIP services.

Another announcement last week is interesting, but I'm still questioning how it might be successfully executed. New MVNO Zer01 Mobile plans to launch on April 1 what it calls a truly unlimited voice and data offering on smart phones for $70 per month without a contract.

The company says it is using a type of roaming agreement to tunnel from AT&T Mobility's network into its own IP backbone thus realizing savings by eliminating the costs associated with circuit-switched voice calling. The company has a proprietary VoIP application that runs on Windows Mobile 6 phones but will work on Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Java phones and jail-broken iPhones in the future. The application integrates into a device's dialer app to allow the end user to dial from the phone's keypad without launching a separate application.

Here is one part that is difficult to believe. Zer01 Mobile says it is able to deliver VoIP over slower EDGE and GPRS networks from AT&T and T-Mobile using certain algorithms that address latency issues. Another interesting part of the MVNO is the fact that the company isn't buying wholesale minutes from AT&T or T-Mobile. It is interconnecting with the networks using roaming agreements.

While you have to question the impact a service like this will have on the operator industry as a whole, there is no doubt that innovative VoIP services like these will keep coming. JahJah, Skype, Truphone and others will continue to gnaw away at voice traffic. VoIP over WiFi will continue to grow.

Moreover, operators are positioning data with all-you-can-eat access plans (although there is a 5 GB cap) but still banning VoIP. As customers begin viewing these services as almost on par with DSL, can operators continue banning VoIP? (Granted, some have quietly taken the ban away, but certainly aren't advertising it.)

So the question becomes: How long can operators ignore mobile VoIP services? We've been hearing for the last three years what a big opportunity wireless VoIP would be for operators as an adjunct to their own services. Obviously operators haven't had a big incentive yet to adopt VoIP as circuit-switched voice remains a big driver of revenues. But it seems logical to me that operators should come out with aggressive offerings before losing some business to a player like Google. --Lynnette