Rhodri Marsden: Why can't I make internet voice calls on my mobile phone?


This might require something of a mental leap if you're not an optician, but imagine for a moment that you're an optician. Business is ticking over nicely, when another optician moves into some unused floorspace on your premises, substantially undercutting you on the price of contact lenses – and owing to a quirk in local byelaws you can't do anything except behave aggressively and try changing the locks.

O2 and Orange are finding themselves invaded in this way by internet telephony service Skype; faced with the prospect of their customers using Nokia's forthcoming N97 phone to make cheap calls via a pre-installed Skype application instead of their network, O2 have put out a statement saying: "We are currently working with Nokia to understand their Skype service and the business model behind it." Roughly translated: you're having a laugh, right?

As phones become better equipped to deal with all the shiny baubles dangled by the internet, it's becoming hard for mobile networks to deny its customers the use of services that their handsets are perfectly capable of. But the history of internet telephony (voice over internet protocol, or VoIP) on mobiles has been littered with these kind of restrictions. If you want to stream music videos to your phone using your generous data plan, fine. But if you want to chat cheaply with your Auntie Marjorie in Melbourne across the internet, you're going to have to jump through hoops.

The big four networks in the UK have so far relied on the majority of their customers remaining blissfully ignorant of VoIP; they reluctantly accept a few thousand geeks installing applications such as Truphone or Fring on their phones (which is not that difficult at all, incidentally) but having Skype pre-installed on a long-awaited handset such as the N97 is deemed a colossal threat to profits.

That may be true, but the smoke screen can't remain in place for too much longer, because we're catching on. The fifth UK network, 3, recently enhanced its maverick reputation by launching dedicated Skype phones, and picked up huge numbers of subscribers as a result. Because unsurprisingly, we like being able to make lengthy international calls without haemorrhaging cash. Of course, it's possible that the quality and reliability of certain VoIP services isn't that great, and the savings to be made aren't substantial enough to bother using them. But to pretend that they doesn't exist at all is mildly insulting.

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