Mobile VoIP causes friction

Never come between a geek and his gadget. Two mobile operators have learned to appreciate this wisdom, after daring to tinker with the latest highly sought-after phone from Nokia, the N95. But the fallout from this consumer tussle has ramifications for all mobile phone users.

At issue is the decision by Vodafone and Orange to modify the Nokia device, disabling the menu function that allows users to make voice over IP (VoIP) calls from the handset. Customers subsequently complained that one of the standout features of the device would not be available to them.

The Nokia N95 comes with the capability to make mobile VoIP calls when the user is in range of a high-speed wireless broadband connection, such as a WiFi cloud or even over the mobile operators’ 3G networks. Potentially, this would allow users to make extremely cheap calls from their mobiles – an even more attractive proposition when making international calls.

Such a facility is unlikely to be welcomed by the mobile operators. The fixed-line operators have already seen the way services such as Skype have eaten into their revenues, as users migrate en masse to lower cost call-making platforms.

So is this simply a case of protectionism, with the operators desperately attempting to safeguard their revenues? Or, given that handsets in the UK are frequently subsidised, are the operators entitled to dictate what features appear on the devices?

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator has so far decided that the best way to resolve the dispute is to let market forces work their course: Other operators have opted not to disable the wireless VoIP feature – if enough consumers feel strongly enough about making wireless VoIP calls, Orange and Vodafone may change their stance.

Nevertheless, this is likely to be a watershed moment for the mobile operators. If demand for wireless VoIP takes off in the same way that Skype has, their revenues are likely to be severely eroded. However, it may also help wean users off their “addiction to subsidy”, says Dean Bubley, of analyst group Disruptive Research.

Either way, the business of buying mobile phone services could be seriously impacted by the rise of wireless VoIP.

The experts' response…

Nick Horton, head of business devices at Orange in the UK says that Orange is happy to offer data services such a wireless VoIP provided they have been adequately tested.

Orange has decided to disable VoIP on the handset because the client has not been tested and we are not convinced that it offers a decent customer experience.  While we have deactivated VoIP on this handset, it is currently not our strategy to disable the client on all handsets. All customers that subscribe to a mobile data tariff can download and use applications that allow VoIP calls on 3G handsets. The data used to make those calls will be deducted from their data allocation.

Regulators need to protect users in order that innovative services such as wireless VoIP are given the opportunity to flourish, says James Tagg, CEO of Truphone.

The mobile service operators subsidise handsets in order to encourage customers to sign up, but it is still the customer that owns the device. Blocking access to our [VoIP] service is akin to a customer signing up for ADSL and finding his ISP has blocked access to Google – it is bad for the evolution of the mobile Internet. The regulators should be ensuring that customers are able to choose themselves what services they use. It’s not enough to simply leave it to market forces.

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

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