Optus has just announced the introduction of Wi-Fi Talk. This enables its customers to make voice calls and send SMS text when the mobile signal is poor but there is a Wi-Fi signal. In the UK EE has the same facility with Wi-Fi Calling, it is also available through 3 and Smartone in Hong Kong and in the US with Sprint or T-Mobile.
This is not a new technology and a number of handsets used to support UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access). Orange supported this extensively and while it was only useful for voice calls it did mean that coverage indoors was significantly improved for many people especially corporate leaders who lived in locations with little mobile signal due to walls or remoteness. The manufacturers eventually dropped the technology as it was not widely taken up and eventually hardly any handsets supported the technology
Optus are using Wi-Fi Calling, though have branded it Wi-Fi Talk and it is available on Apple and Android devices. The Optus press release indicates that it will work on Apple devices with iOS 6.0 or later although the Apple support website indicates that it needs to be version 8.0. Android version 4.0 or later is also supported. The app itself is free and can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store and Google Play but calls will still be charged at normal rates.
The advantage for consumers and corporates is that similar to UMA it will allow coverage to be extended into buildings and locations seamlessly where a mobile phone is connected to a Wi-Fi connection.
As Amanda Hutton, Optus Vice President of Customer Experience and Delivery commented: “Optus is focused on giving our customers the best possible experience. Wi-Fi Talk is an innovative solution to help customers stay connected easily if mobile coverage is limited indoors, whether at home, in the office, or even in places such as shopping centres.”
The end of Roaming rates?
Customers installing the solution will be very interested to find out when travelling abroad whether they pay roaming rates to make, or potentially even receive calls. UMA could not distinguish where a caller was located and thus it was far cheaper making and receiving calls over UMA when located in a foreign country. There is no reason to doubt that Wifi Calling will not work in a similar way.
It would be interesting to hear whether anyone has managed to force the phone just to work abroad using Wi-FI Talk or Wi-FI calling there is no reason to doubt that this will not be the case. Certainly as Wi-fi Talk expands its seems reasonable to assume that callers will be able to use their phones abroad far cheaper.
In Europe with Europeans legislation forcing down costs this will not impact businesses that much but it will have an impact on some Telco’s. Outside of Europe, especially in the US and the Far East, there is likely to be a much greater impact.
Is Wifi Talk a threat to Viber and Skype
Probably not. In fact it may only enhance the popularity of these solutions. As users become more used to using an app to make calls it may be that consumers actually switch over to these mobile VOIP solutions and start using them exclusively. That Optus and the other telco’s are all charging per minute for calls still means that there is still room for companies like Skype and Viber to take advantage.
While this does allow Optus and others to improve their coverage maps inside buildings especially it does not gain any other real advantage over the mobile VOIP companies in doing so.
It seems likely that Wi-Fi talk will be taking up slowly by most other Telco’s. Unlike pushing Viber or Skype it allows Telco’s to retain the revenues as charges are still based on minutes rather than data usage. There is a question over the quality of the calls though and Optus recommend at least 100Kb per second bandwidth. That is little compared to most broadband connections nowadays, however when you have teenage children at home watching movies, uploading videos and playing bandwidth hungry computer games there may be more issues with quality than business users would like.
Ms Hutton infers that this is not the only development that Optus will be bringing to market in this space and it will be interesting to see what is next. Hutton commented: “Wi-Fi Talk is a simple way for Optus customers to stay connected where they have access to a Wi-Fi connection. This is the first of many exciting developments for Optus in the Wi-Fi calling space.”