WiFi On Mobiles: Fact or Fiction?

The New York Times takes a look at the emerging trend of mobile phones with built in Wi-Fi connectivity and concludes that the barbarians are at the gates. Their conclusion is that WiFi could pose challenges to the traditional cell phone carriers. Maybe, maybe not!

Instead of relying on standard cellphone networks, the phones will make use of the anarchic global patchwork of so-called Wi-Fi hotspots. Other models will be able to switch easily between the two modes.

A lot of my good pals are pretty excited about this article, perhaps too excited. The story, looks at the positive side of the trend, but skips over the challenges of today’s Wi-Fi networks and consumer ability to use them as conduits for voice. These challenges, are likely to be around for sometime, despite what the folks from T-Mobile might have to say.

Later this year, T-Mobile plans to test a service that will allow its subscribers to switch seamlessly between connections to cellular towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, including those in homes and the more than 7,000 it controls in Starbucks outlets, airports and other locations, according to analysts with knowledge of the plans

Except, if you try to log on to the T-Mobile network, you have to jump through the hoops on a web page, which is temperamental at very best. Unless you have two of the T-Mobile’s Windows Mobile handsets – MDA and SDA – you cannot easily log on the the T-Mobile network.

I have tried it with Nokia N93, Nokia E61 and Nokia 9300i. It is a problem that occurs on other non-PC devices as well. Good luck entering your username and password information on a mobile phone browser. And even if you do, something strange will always happen making you repeat the process. And when you somehow overcome these problems, then try making a VoIP phone call. It would be a good way to convince your mother that you are an astronaut.

One of the reasons I ended up buying an E61 was because it boasted WiFi and VoIP in one device. WiFi is nifty when surfing the web or checking email, but VoIP hasn’t worked…. period. You need special clients from Avaya or Cisco and your company needs to be using their IP-PBX systems. A simple Asterisk system, the kind I am using doesn’t work.

Even the WiFi VoIP only handsets, if you try using them outside the closed WiFi network (inside your home or office) are not that easy to use. Let me be even more blunt: WiFi/VoIP combo today is where the MP3 players were before iPod came along. So unless something as gigantic as “iPod” happens, this is just another complex technology for consumers (not the early adopters) to decipher.

The bottom line is that before WiFi-on-the-mobile becomes a legitimate way of making phone calls, you would find speedier versions of 3G – EVDO Rev A and HSDPA would come to market. The carriers will use the increased capacities to offer some sort of VoIP plans. What happens then?

That should be a topic for another Times story!