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You Can Take It with You

3 minute read
Mark Halper

As recently as two years ago, few people outside of geekdom had even heard of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), an inexpensive way of making phone calls via the Internet. The technology used to suffer from tedious software and poor quality. But today, VoIP is so widespread — an estimated 15 million consumers worldwide use it, according to London research firm Ovum — that you may well have made a VoIP call without knowing it. Now, unable to beat VoIP, everyone from big telecom firms to mobile service providers is rushing to join it.

This spring in Britain, BT will launch Project Bluephone, a Motorola-built mobile phone that uses VoIP to bypass conventional mobile networks. Instead of sending the call over mobile airwaves, the phone’s Bluetooth wireless transmitter routes calls to a BT-supplied “access point” in your home or office, which in turn feeds the call onto the Internet. From there, voice traffic travels over the Net much as an e-mail does, before it is reassembled at the receiving end. BT has not yet priced the Bluephone handset or service, but estimates that calls could be 30% cheaper than on standard mobiles.

UTStarcom is taking mobile VoIP one step further by deploying WI-FI technology. Next quarter, the Alameda, California-based company will start selling its F1000 WI-FI handset in the U.S. The F1000, which the company says will cost $100 or less, uses Wi-Fi’s wireless Web access to send mobile traffic over the Net. To use the phone at home, subscribers need a broadband connection and a wi-fi transmitter; in the U.S., they’ll be able to make unlimited calls anywhere in the country and to Canada for $25 a month. Once Vonage, the American VoIP service provider behind the plan, works out its hotspot pricing, the unit will also work in public WI-FI zones.

In Europe, starting in April, Siemens will introduce a software�adapter combo that turns a home phone and broadband connection into a VoIP system. Simply plug the Gigaset M34 Adapter, which sells for $131, into the computer’s USB port, load the software and start making free calls to any VoIP phone. There’s a catch: the device only works with Siemens cordless fixed-line phones. A bigger device is on the way from Linksys, a subsidiary of Cisco based in Irvine, California. While this system is cheap, it’s not free; different providers have different pricing schemes. You can, however, use the lightweight box and your own phone number wherever there’s broadband. Between that and the mobiles, VoIP’s new motto will soon be: “Don’t leave home without it.”

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