VoIP Invades Hotspots

By Vikki Lipset

December 17, 2003

A new service from Canadian wireless ISP FatPort brings VoIP to public Wi-Fi networks.

Most voice over WLAN offerings to date have been focused on the enterprise market, but Canadian wireless ISP FatPort is bringing wireless VoIP to public Wi-Fi networks.

The company on Tuesday launched a new division called mobitus to offer a VoIP service by the same name. Mobitus is a softphone; users must download software to their laptop computers and purchase a headset in order to make phone calls. Once set up, they can make calls from any location with Internet connectivity.

The service is $16.95 (CDN) per month, which includes unlimited worldwide calling to other mobitus users, as well as voicemail with e-mail notification, call display, call waiting and three-way calling. Calls placed outside the mobitus network (i.e., to anyone who isn't a subscriber) are four cents a minute to Canada, and five cents a minute to the United States. There is also a one-time service activation fee of $29.95 (CDN), which includes the software and 10 calling units, equivalent to $10 (USD), for off-network calls.

When customers sign up, they are assigned a 12-digit number that other mobitus members can use to call them. They can also purchase a toll-free number for their account for an additional $6.95 (CDN) per month. They will also be billed eight cents a minute for any calls made to the toll-free number.

Mobitus envisions three usage models for the service, according to Michael Kuhlmann, vice president of business development for the company. One will be as an alternative to a second phone line in the home. "I'm thinking of teenagers," he said. "Instead of having to buy extra phone lines at each end, they simply purchase two of these -- and they can chat that way." (Of course, for PC-to-PC chats, an application such as Skype would also fit the bill and is, for the time being at least, free.)

The company also expects the service to be popular among business travelers, who could use it at hotspots and hotels. "I think the primary point of contact today, especially for the demographic that we're after, is still very much people's cell phones," Kuhlmann noted. "So they'll be able to save money when they're traveling, not having to pay roaming charges when they're able to dial out using VoIP."

The service could also be a boon to those who live in areas where international calling is expensive, such as countries with state-run phone companies. "This gives them the ability to very quickly place calls around the globe at reasonable rates, which is something they have not had the ability to do before." International rates range from seven cents a minute to Ireland, to nine cents a minute to Japan, to $1.37 a minute to Iraq.

Kuhlmann stressed that subscribers can use the service from any public Wi-Fi network, not just FatPort hotspots. He said that the service over a wireless LAN is just as good as over a wired network (our call, which was made using a softphone from a hotspot, was comparable to one made on a cell phone), but concedes that as more users saturate the wireless link, the call quality will suffer.

"At this point, the reason why this is working is because there is quite frankly a lot of capacity left over on hotspot networks in general."

Future versions of mobitus will attempt to bring added flexibility to voice communications, Kuhlmann said. "How does this actually make your life any better apart from the service being cheaper? That's really what our focus is. Expect the prices to be reasonable, but expect to see from us in the future service offerings surrounding this that you simply can't do with regular phone systems today."

For example, he said, customers should be able to dial numbers directly from their contact manager. Presence management features are also in the product roadmap, he suggested.

Also in the works is software for the Macintosh and Pocket PC platforms. The current version of the softphone, which was created by Xten Networks, only works with Windows-based computers.

FatPort isn't the only wireless ISP dabbling in VoIP. Broadreach Networks plans to roll out a VoIP service next summer that would allow users to make calls from select hotspots in the United Kingdom.



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