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Communications

VOIP a welcome addition to cellphones Add to ...

Voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) - the technology for making phone calls over the Internet or private data networks - has become widespread, but until recently it wasn't an option if you were using a mobile phone.

Today's advanced smart phones, when coupled with special software and VOIP services, can be used to route calls over the Internet. Callers can sometimes save a lot of money, particularly when using free or cheap Internet hot spots instead of paying exorbitant roaming fees and long distance charges.

"VOIP in general should be something that small businesses should take a look at," says Amit Kaminer, research analyst at telecommunications consultancy SeaBoard Group in Toronto, "and I think that mobile is a natural extension of that."

Take care, though: The savings depend on where you are and how your call is connected, and quality can be uneven.

Skype, run by Luxembourg-based Skype Technologies SA, is probably the best known computer-based VOIP service. It uses a desktop or laptop computer's speakers and microphone, or headset, to make phone calls over the public Internet. Last year Skype launched Skype Mobile, software that allows subscribers to use the service from some mobile phones.

Like Skype's software for PCs, the Skype Mobile product is free - you download it from a website. It allows calls to other Skype users at no cost, and to ordinary telephones around the world at rates averaging about two cents a minute, according to Russ Shaw, general manager of Skype's mobile business unit.

If you have an iPhone, you can use Skype Mobile to make calls through wireless hot spots. These are available in most hotels and in many airports, coffee shops and other locations. Some are free. Others charge hourly or daily fees, which means they will probably be an economical alternative to cellphone charges only if you plan to make multiple calls or expensive overseas connections.

For an added charge, Skype users can also set up phone numbers that allow incoming calls to their Skype accounts from any phone, and this works with Skype Mobile, too.

The iPhone is the only phone for which Skype Mobile is available with wireless hot spot support, though certain BlackBerry models and some other phones work with the WiFi standard these hot spots use, and other VOIP applications work on many of them as well.

Increasingly, mobile VOIP services also let you make calls using your data plan. The call is transmitted as data packets, but over the cellular network. This will work essentially anywhere your phone works and will cut your long-distance bill, but won't eliminate roaming charges, Mr. Kaminer says, so the savings aren't as compelling.

Depending on connection quality and network congestion, he says, call quality might not be as good as a regular voice call.

Skype recently announced a deal with the U.S. carrier Verizon. Starting this month, Skype Mobile will work with Verizon's data network, allowing subscribers to make calls at Skype rates on their Verizon data plans from some BlackBerry models and a handful of other manufacturers' phones. Roaming charges will apply, Mr. Shaw says, and for now Skype Mobile won't work with WiFi on Verizon phones.

Skype has a similar deal with British carrier Hutchison 3 Group, and while it hasn't announced a relationship with a Canadian carrier, the company is "very open to that," Mr. Shaw says.

Mr. Shaw says a significant number of small businesses use Skype Mobile. Over all, he estimates usage of the service is split about equally between business and consumer users.

Other services that support mobile VOIP are springing up. Nimbuzz B.V., a Netherlands-based service whose software runs on most smart phones, lets customers make calls on Skype, Google Talk and other VOIP services using wireless networks or cellular data services, as well as keep up with friends on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Tobias Kemper, vice-president of Nimbuzz, says it has 15 million users.

Fring, from Fringland Ltd. of Tel Aviv, is a similar smart phone client for VOIP calls and social networks. Jake Levant, Fringland's vice-president of marketing, says the average customer uses it four hours a day for a combination of calling and social networking. "The phone has changed from just being a way of saying hello to really a much broader way of communicating," he says.

Nimbuzz and Fring are aimed largely at the consumer market, but Mr. Levant says some businesses are showing interest in using Fring to reduce mobile phone costs, and Mr. Kemper says business use of Nimbuzz is higher in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where business users are more conscious of mobile phone costs.

Businesses actually have many mobile VOIP options, Mr. Kaminer notes, because software like Fring and Nimbuzz, and an assortment of lesser-known VOIP client apps for mobile phones, can work with essentially any VOIP service as long as it supports the widely used Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). Many small businesses already use SIP-compliant VOIP services in their offices and can easily enable them on employees' mobile phones by downloading one of these apps.

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