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December 2007 | Volume 10/ Number 12
The Next Wave Redux

Mobile VoIP When is the Tipping Point

December articles traditionally focus on specific projections for the next 12 months, but major industry transitions are more interesting than specific events. Significant transitions involve years of incubation and then a tipping point. Mobile VoIP, or more broadly mobile IP communications, is approaching such a tipping point. The actual transition is more likely in 2009-2010, but business models are being established right now.

Today there are several services that link conventional mobile calls to VoIP services in order to cut international calling costs. Fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) services combine VoIP-over-WiFi with conventional circuit-switched mobile telephony using dual mode handsets.

But so far, independent communications services that only use mobile Internet access have been stalled by a combination of technical and business issues. Technical problems include limited bandwidth and large latencies on early 3G mobile IP services, and limited handset capabilities. Business limitations range from explicit operator restrictions - you may not use VoIP on our network - to bottlenecks in handset distribution channels, locked down handsets, and the diversity of handsets that have to be considered when designing any new service.

Bandwidth, latency and unrestricted access. As I wrote in my October column, emerging radio technology (EVDO Rev A and HSPA) will overcome the bandwidth & latency issues. Also, at least in the US, competition to offer mobile Internet access is about to ratchet up significantly as T-Mobile USA uses the spectrum they acquired in the 2006 AWS auctions to go head-to-head with AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. As competitive fallout, U.S. consumers can expect low-cost flat rate 3G data bundles with no effective limits on VoIP by 2009-2010.

European and Asian markets may evolve differently but already we're seeing some offers of open Internet access via 3G USB modems, i.e. for PC connections via 3G. The next bottleneck is handsets.


Open handset revolution ahead. To date, handset characteristics have been driven by operators. Yes, Nokia has pushed capabilities beyond what operators have requested, but operators have managed to block or stonewall most of these attempts and Nokia has not seriously challenged the operators who, after all, control many of their distribution channels. Apple and Google are not so reticent.

Just as the Internet is global, firms like Apple and Google (and Nokia) have global brands while even the largest mobile operators are only national or regional. Count on Apple and Google to leverage their superior positions.

Apple is following the business path they set with iTunes and the music industry - offer an innovative platform that spans an entire industry, attract the majority of the user base and thus gain the upper hand over the original industry. Apple has gained substantial leverage over the traditional music industry. Can they repeat this pattern with the mobile carriers? Early indications say yes!

As an added benefit, the iPhone is raising consumer interest in open handsets as mainstream news media covers consumer interest in unlocking the Apple iPhone.

Google is the other major player with their open source mobile phone software available through the Open Handset Alliance. Yes, there are specific gPhone handsets, which should add to consumer interest in open access, and specific operator deals, but the interesting difference is the open source software suite.

PC applications flourished, at least in part, because the Windows monopoly provides a single set of APIs for nearly all PCs. The mobile handset landscape lacks such commonality. Symbian, Windows Mobile and BREW appear on a tiny percentage of handsets. While a significant percentage of mobile handsets support Java, handset functions available to the Java programmer vary from phone to phone and are extremely limited in most cases. So today, Java does not represent a path for implementing VoIP on most handsets. If widely adopted, an Open Handset Alliance software stack could have enormous benefit, particularly when aligned with upcoming Java enhancements.

Java enhancements and browser-based mobile applications. The Java community is working on extensions to several standards, most notably extensions to the Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP) under the name MIDP 3.0. These include support for concurrency, the ability to run applications in the background and other extensions that make it possible to think about IP communications applications written in Java.

At the same time, we're seeing the advent of browser-based applications on mobile devices. The Apple iPhone is the star here, but it's a clear trend for the industry. Combining browser-based applications with Java support suggests a path for rich IP communications. With MIDP 3.0 heading towards early 2008 adoption, this is another path that won't fully develop before 2009-2010. While the fragmented handset software landscape will persist, it's about to get substantially easier for 3rd parties to implement over-the-top IP communications on open handsets and open networks.

The tipping point. In summary, all indications point to 2009-2010 as the tipping point for IP communications over mobile Internet access.

Brough Turner is Senior VP of Technology, CTO and Co-Founder of NMS Communications. For more information, please visit the company online at http://www.nmscommunications.com.

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