Monday, June 25, 2007

VOE: "Cincinnati Bell Wireless launches Wi-Fi/cell service"

Voice of Experience Files:

From our new "Voice of Experience" files: Lafayette will want to note that wifi/cellular convergence is emerging at the edges of the cellular business.

LUS' unique fiber/wifi IP-based network will allow some pretty nifty voice services to emerge. Our utility will be able to put together an interesting Voice ecology that combines VOIP on fiber with its wifi network to allow your personal phone number to reach you in multiple ways, to enable on-the-fly conference calling (with video?), access back to data held online or in your base computer, combined chat/voice/video/SMS connectivity, digital recording, message forwarding to any IP address, and more...

Most LPF readers are, I suspect, care most about the internet and recognize the central role cable TV will play in paying off the system. Relative to those highlights, voice gets ignored. Maybe it shouldn't be—convergence is moving from talking to commercial products in the voice arena and Lafayette will be positioned to ride the wave as wifi mobile telephony emerges while our system is built over the next 18 months. (What we need is a partnership with a mobile carrier...on which more below.)

The immediate inspiration for those reflections? Margaret Reardon's blog entry on the launch of Cincinnati Bell's* new wifi/cell service. (Their local paper has a short article as well.)

The long and the short of it is that your phone will switch seamlessly between the cellular network and approved wifi networks. The service is an add-on 10 dollar a month charge on your wireless bill. Partially offsetting that monthly charge is the fact that any time you are on a wifi network your minutes are free. Really. And that "approved" means approved by you, not Cincinnati Bell. You can validate you personal or work or favorite coffee house wifi network as a connection point. Or you can use Cincinnati Bell's own wifi network of 300 points without any setup at all. Get near one and your phone call switches over to wifi automatically and your minutes are still free. (Incidentally, Cincinnati Bell offers free access to its wifi network as part of its wired high-speed internet package; I hope LUS will do something similar.)

T-Mobile is the national cell carrier who is widely rumored to be planning the nationwide launch of a similar service, Hotspot@Home, in a few days. (They've been trialling it in Washington state.) That makes T-Mobile the obvious candidate for cellular partnership with LUS. The trade-off would be simple: LUS gets a national cellphone partner whose phone will work across the country and who is actively developing new integrated services. (Nobody will buy a wifi service that only works in the city of Lafayette.) T-Mobile gets virtually guaranteed dominance in Lafayette and the environs. (If you do most of your calling from within the city you can easily go with the least expensive calling plan since those calls won't run up minutes. Who wouldn't go with cheap--and local?) It could be a great deal.

Voice is something to watch. And Cincinnati Bell and T-Mobile are the actors to follow.


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*Cincinnati Bell is one of those "asterisk" companies -- part of the Bell system since 1878 but never owned by Ma Bell, it is probably the largest "independent, local" phone company in the nation. This first-in-the-country initiative is further evidence that local ownership of telecom networks is a good thing.

Geeky extra: Both Cincinnati Bell and T-Mobile are using a "glue" technology called UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) which allows providers, and to a lesser extent users, to hook into multiple protocols and tools. Most crucially for the current discussion it facilitates seamless handoffs between cellular and wireless networks. But it goes much further than that. If you are masochistic enough to want to follow it out you can start at the rather thin and querulous wikipedia page.

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