Skype, Fring and the real cost of VoIP and video calling

Mike Dano

VoIP calling firms Fring and Skype managed to entertain the tech industry for much of yesterday with an increasingly heated war of words: Fring accused Skype of blocking its iPhone 4 video calls, and called the company "cowards" that had "championed the cause of openness" but is now trying to "muzzle competition."

"Untrue," argued Skype in a counter-post. "Fring was using Skype software in a way it wasn't designed to be used."

The bickering certainly is compelling, but it only serves to blur an issue far more important to the average consumer: How much does this all cost?

Following the introduction of AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) tiered data pricing (and hints by other carriers of similar plans), consumers soon will no longer have the option of ignoring the amount of data their services require. Pandora, Google Maps, Loopt, Skype and Fring: All of these offerings require the use of data, and for most it's not immediately clear exactly how much data they will need. While AT&T does provide usage alerts as consumers near their monthly data allotments, as far as I can tell there's no way for the average user to see a breakdown of which services are eating up the lion's share of that data.

So that brings up the question: If Skype and Fring ever manage to resolve their dispute, how much data would a user need to conduct a 3G video call between the two? On its website, Fring said a VoIP voice call uses around 8 MB per hour, while a video call uses around 60 MB per hour. When questioned on the topic, Skype said its (non-video) calling service uses around 20 MB for an hour-long call. (Notably, this doesn't count for Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) Skype users, as the service runs over the carrier's circuit-switched network.)

Bottom-line: AT&T users on the 200 MB per month plan can make around 3 hours of Fring-based video calling per month. Combine that with a healthy dose of Pandora, emailing, Web surfing and Facebooking and you're probably looking at much less than 3 hours.

Again, the upshot of all these mathematical gymnastics is that it's not theoretical: Any Fring user making 3G video calls will probably want to know how much it's going to cost, just like any regular cell phone user must track the number of minutes they use in a given period.

It's a brave new data world out there, and I suspect the companies that provide consumers with the clearest information on how much data they are using will be the ones to succeed. --Mike