Telefonica’s Tu Go service turns to WebRTC for in-browser calls

The Spanish carrier group Telefónica is big on WebRTC, the technology that allows for plugin-free in-browser voice and video calls, among other things – it uses it for the in-browser Skype rival that’s built into Firefox these days, for example. So it’s no surprise to see the firm turn to WebRTC to power the next generation of its Tu Go service, which extends Telefónica/O2/Movistar’s services from the mobile network to Wi-Fi.

Whereas the desktop Tu Go client has so far been a discrete affair, it can now be accessed from within the browser, as long as that browser supports WebRTC – so far, Chrome and Firefox apparently offer the best experience. There’s no need to download anything extra and, as with the new Reach Me feature in rival Orange’s Libon app, this provides another way to take and make calls using your normal mobile phone number even when there’s no reception (Libon doesn’t require you to be an Orange customer, though).

The service bases its experience on conversation timelines and is designed to make it easy to continue conversations across devices. Tu Go for Web also makes it possible to conduct up to five conversations at once, which sounds technically impressive if somewhat mentally taxing.

One more thing to keep an eye out for: Telefónica is experimenting with integrating Tu Go with IFTTT so, for example, incoming SMSes could be automatically saved in Evernote or incoming calls from specific people could change the color of your home’s lighting as an alert.

When Tu Go came out a couple years back, I said Telefónica had pulled off the rare trick of creating unique value in a carrier-backed “over-the-top” (OTT) app — rather than just trying to cannibalize its own mobile services with an OTT rival. It is using the internet to extend that core service to new devices. It’s good to see the company still playing around with new ideas that this IP-based world makes possible.

Tu Go for Web is available now to O2 customers in the U.K. and Movistar customers in Argentina. It will also soon roll out to Peru, Mexico and Brazil, which are entirely new markets for Tu Go.

Orange’s Libon app lets you take calls to your number over Wi-Fi

Libon, the WhatsApp and Skype competitor from French carrier group Orange, has an interesting new feature called Reach Me, which will allow people to send and receive calls over Wi-Fi using their mobile phone number, regardless of who their actual carrier is.

The Libon app has been around for more than two years now — Orange won’t say how many users it has amassed during that time, but the carrier group uses it to offer special calling deals through its local operators, and Libon chief Dominic Lobo told me that people are using it in over 100 countries.

The Reach Me feature is being pitched as a way to get around poor indoor mobile coverage. “If someone calls you, the call is picked up by your Libon service – all you need is Wi-Fi coverage in your home or wherever you are and you’ll never miss a call,” Lobo told me.

I reckon that also makes it an interesting proposition for those traveling overseas and looking to avoid roaming voice fees, though they would of course need to have a Wi-Fi connection, and Libon will have to have been enabled in the country where they are.

Orange will show off the Reach Me feature at Mobile World Congress next week, and will roll it out commercially during the first half of this year. Italy will be first, somewhere around the end of March. According to Lobo, Italy has a lot of Android phones (the feature will be available on that platform first) and enough existing Libon users to provide Orange with good data on the initial rollout.

In addition, Orange doesn’t have a carrier in Italy, making it a good showcase for the so-called “over-the-top” (i.e. provided over the internet like Skype et al) nature of the app. “We want to demonstrate that we can launch it in a market unrelated to ours,” Lobo said.

Cablevision Freewheel review: A Wi-Fi-only smartphone from a cable company

Could you get mobile service from the same company that provides your cable TV and internet? That’s the idea behind Freewheel, a new service from Cablevision’s Optimum that gives you a mobile phone that only works over Wi-Fi. As Wi-Fi becomes more ubiquitous, often people find themselves bouncing between hotspots rather than staying on the cellular network, so by cutting out the carriers, Freewheel could end up the blueprint for other cable companies like Comcast to offer their own mobile plans.

If you’re looking for a smartphone replacement, you’ll probably find Freewheel to be a disappointing service. But if you want a home phone that you can take with you, then Freewheel might be right for you. There’s just one problem: It’s not clear what Freewheel does better — or cheaper — than a traditional mobile phone plan.

You can use any phone, as long as it’s Freewheel’s Moto G

The only device that currently works with Freewheel is the 2013 Moto G made by Motorola. It’s a fine device, and one of the most cost-effective phones on the market. The full Gigaom review is here. It costs $99.95 directly from Optimum, and you’ll need to purchase it to use the service.

freewheel-moto-g

It’s not the latest and greatest phone — it’s one generation removed from Motorola’s latest G — but it’s a solid device. And while you’re still on Android 4.4 KitKat at the moment, Cablevision says its phone will get an update to Android 5.0 when it becomes available for the Moto G.

freewheel-widget

The Freewheel Moto G is basically the same as other versions of the Moto G , but instead of using the standard Android calling and texting clients, Optimum has created its own Freewheel communications apps. A Freewheel widget puts the status of your Wi-Fi connection on the main screen, and when you connect to Wi-Fi, you’ll receive an alert in the notifications pane that Freewheel is available. Optimum also included a few more of its apps, including one for News12, and a support app.

Freewheel dialer app

Caller ID is handled by Optimum in the Freewheel dialer app, which is nice. Freewheel’s calling apps also support Google-synced contacts. If you don’t have someone in your contacts, your phone might still be able to give you the name of the person who the number is registered to. If you install a third-party dialer like Dialer+ or an SMS app like Google Messenger, it won’t work, but that’s to be expected. Over-the-top messaging and calling apps like Whatsapp and Viber work when you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

Optimum hasn’t worked out all of the kinks. In some cases, the Moto G thinks its still a regular mobile phone and it treats the lack of SIM card as a problem. For instance, when you pull the notifications pane down, it still suggests the phone is for “emergency calls only,” as if the device doesn’t have a SIM card installed. The lockscreen is the same story. Without fail, every time you’re looking at the device’s default lock screen, it will remind you that your device can’t make traditional calls.

freewheel-notifications-pane

Making calls and texts over Wi-Fi

Call quality is fine: Although it’s not quite as clear as HD Voice can be, dialogue is understandable and usually without lag. In most cases, calls don’t take that much time to go through — I tested making a call from the Freewheel and found no appreciable delay when calling a normal cellphone. Generally, I didn’t experience many issues when making a call while in a strong Wi-Fi network, like my home.

connected-but-poor

Freewheel starts to run into issues at the edges of Wi-Fi networks, though. Sometimes Freewheel warns you the audio will be poor and sometimes it doesn’t. There is some wonkiness if you walk out of a network’s range when you’re making a call — you’ll simply lose service. Your device will still think it’s making a call, but no sound will come through its speakers. If you’re at the edge of a Wi-Fi network, sometimes you’ll be able to make a call which will then be dropped immediately. During testing, I called the Freewheel from my cell phone when it was on the edge of a network, and my device simply tried to connect indefinitely.

Even worse, if you miss a call while not connected to a Wi-Fi network, you’d better hope that the person who is calling you knows to leave a voicemail, otherwise you won’t get a notification that you’ve missed a call. When back on Wi-Fi, there will be a little red bubble saying there’s a voicemail, but otherwise, there’s no missed call notification.

Sometimes when the call quality is subpar, you receive a weird error message, like this one:

2015-02-17 20.59.07

One major reason Optimum picked now to offer a Wi-Fi only phone service is that last year it turned on a new program where Optimum-furnished Wi-Fi routers basically became hotspots — if you’ve got a Optimum account, there’s a good chance you can use your neighbor’s Wi-Fi.

Freewheel does a great job automatically connecting to those Optimum Wi-Fi networks. When connecting to Optimum Wi-Fi with other devices, usually you have to sign in with your account in the browser, or set up auto sign-in on the Optimum website with your device’s unique identifier. The Freewheel Moto G simply latches onto every Optimum hotspot it sees like a regular mobile phone connects to a tower.

In my building in Brooklyn, New York, the only cable internet provider is Optimum, so it’s covered in Optimum Wi-Fi hotspots. Almost anywhere inside the building, service is great and the device can manage to make a call. On the street, Optimum Wi-Fi is omnipresent as well, but it’s much more difficult to find a strong connection — after all, you don’t know whose router you’re connecting and what walls are in your way. When testing the Freewheel Moto G in the street, I was unable to use Optimum Wi-Fi to place a call, although texts sometimes went through.

Even in the most densely packed Optimum neighborhoods, the Wi-Fi mesh isn’t yet strong enough to replace cellular service, a reason why Optimum or other cable companies might want to supplement their Wi-Fi networks with virtual cellular service.

Freewheel error

Who is Freewheel for?

Freewheel costs $9.95 per month on top of a Optimum cable internet package, and $29.95 if you’re not already an Optimum customer. At $10, it’s the same price as Optimum charges for a VoIP landline, and Freewheel could be a good replacement for a home phone, although users should keep in mind that as a smartphone, it requires daily charging and doesn’t come with a dock.

I don’t think many people are going to sign up for Freewheel if they’re not already Optimum subscribers. There are compelling MVNO plans that come with texts and minutes for well under $30 per month. The main difference is a cellular plan gives you the ability to be reached even if you’re not nearby a Wi-Fi hotspot. Republic Wireless offers a similar Wi-Fi-only talk and text plan for $5 per month, and Scratch Wireless has a service in plan in beta that gives you Wi-Fi calling and even SMS on the cellular network for free . And of course, you can always sign up for a Google Voice number at no charge and use that on your tablet or phone, or you can pay for a Skype number.

Small business owners might like that they can have a separate number that can go with them when they leave the house. And I can see Freewheel being a cost-effective way to start kids off with a first smartphone. There’s one scenario where Freewheel makes a lot of sense: It can make domestic phone calls for free from overseas. So if you’re planning a European vacation, you can bring along the Moto G and make free calls to home.

Still — even in these circumstances, I believe most people would be better off choosing their own smartphone or tablet and installing Skype with an online number, unless you plan on spending hours talking on the phone, in which case Freewheel could cost less. And while some parents might see Freewheel as a good starter phone, they might be better off with a service plan-free iPod touch or tablet. Sure, your kids will lose out on the ability to text, but they’re more likely interested in using data for apps like Snapchat and Instagram — because who makes phone calls these days? It’s all about whether you’re hooked up to the Wi-Fi.

Open-Xchange’s telco customers can deploy Skype-rivalling OX Messenger by end of year

Open-Xchange’s WebRTC-based OX Messenger voice, video and text messaging app will become available from December, the company said on Thursday. As I reported earlier this year, the plugin-free app was developed alongside Dutch VoIP firm Voiceworks. The German company’s OX App Suite tools are mostly for telcos and hosting providers that want to offer customers an alternative to the likes of Google Apps (Hangouts, or Microsoft’s Skype, in this case) though they can also be installed for use in the enterprise. OX Messenger plugs into the rest of the OX App Suite, making it possible to call or message from within email chains, for example. It will also offer calls to regular lines.