Is Skype's persistence finally paying off?

Is Skype's persistence in pushing its services into the mobile environment finally paying off? It's no secret that a majority of the world's operators would like the company to go away as VoIP services represent a major threat to precious voice revenues. But Skype continues to look for ways around these gatekeepers, including running to the FCC in a bid to force operators to open their networks, and partnering with third parties like Nokia and Intel to embed Skype software in mobile devices.

The company's more recent move to create a Skype application for the iPhone significantly raised the company's profile in the mobile community and is beginning to create awareness among mobile customers that operators don't want Skype around. Remember the stink made around the fact that the VoIP application can only be used in WiFi-mode?

Still, what Skype really needs is the buy-in of operators to make mobile VoIP services proliferate, a fact the company highlighted last month during the CTIA Wireless show in Las Vegas. Much of the company's press conference there was set aside to discuss Skype's desire and willingness to work more closely with mobile operators. Skype Chief Operating Officer Scott Durchslag said there has been progress, though he also admitted such efforts can take a while, and added that Skype will not let its own strategic plans be delayed by slow talks with carriers.

But the one deal that Skype has with 3UK could break the market open for the operator, at least in the United Kingdom. Last week, 3UK announced a new service that allows anyone with a 3SIM and an unlocked 3G handset to access unlimited Skype-to-Skype calls and instant messages with no data charges or top-up requirements. Called "Free Skype on 3," the service is designed to steal customers away from competitors, strengthen 3UK's position as a top mobile Internet provider, and, according to Current Analysis, shake up expectations around mobile VoIP--not exactly something operators want to happen.

How is 3UK able to do this without overloading its 3G network? Interestingly, this Skype client actually works as a circuit-switched call and becomes an Internet call once it reaches Skype's infrastructure. So the operator isn't afraid of ramping up a sizable customer base of mobile Skype users and the quality will be as good as a circuit-switched call.

"The most damaging aspect of this promotion is the notion of ‘free service' it sews," wrote Current Analysis analyst Emma Mohr-McClune. "Competitors' worst fears of mobile VoIP marketed as a substitution for standard mobile voice are about to be realized."

Of course, the move could backfire for 3UK. What if many customers only want to use the Skype service and don't buy other data services from the operator? We could see a retreat, but then consumers will have already experienced mobile VoIP, or at least what they think is mobile VoIP, making it difficult for mobile operators to continue to ignore VoIP. --Lynnette

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