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Going dual-mode in Barcelona

FirstHand Technologies CEO David Hattey gets a firsthand lesson about the ups and downs of using dual-mode cell phones.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

While in Barcelona this past February for the 3GSM World Congress, I had an illuminating experience that demonstrated once again why dual-mode phones are certain to explode in popularity soon among business users.

The 3GSM show is one of the biggest around: More than 50,000 attendees and 2,000 reporters showed up. The hot topics this year included voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), convergence and IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) technology.

For the show, I brought along my dual-mode phone, since roaming charges in Spain are about $1.50 per minute and my company, FirstHand Technologies, was in the middle of Round C funding. That meant I'd be working with investors to put the deal together, along with all of the other tasks executives need to do to run a company. I knew that Europe is more VoIP-friendly than the U.S. and Canada, so I figured I'd be able to save some money by using VoIP service whenever it was available.

Besides its cellular/Wi-Fi capabilities, my phone was loaded with a software product my company develops to push out enterprise IP PBX (public branch exchange) features to mobile devices, so that I'd have those capabilities with me during the course of the trip.

While business is likely to lead the way in using dual-mode phones, I expect that consumers won't be far behind.

When I arrived at my hotel in Barcelona, I was happy to discover that it offered free Wi-Fi services--at least I'd be able to save some money in the evenings. But the kicker was that when I arrived at 3GSM, I found out that they were offering free KubiWireless Wi-Fi service. That meant that I could make all of my calls from the show or hotel without roaming charges.

Within a few minutes, I entered the service set identifier and access credential information, fired up the software and connected to our IP PBX back in Ottawa. As a result, I was not only saving roaming charges, but I could call within and outside my company as if I were sitting at my desk.

While it's true that the quality of VoIP calls is sometimes subpar, when I called my daughter back home, the first thing she said was, "I thought you were going to Barcelona." Score one for improved VoIP quality of services, although I realize that there's still a ways to go in terms of consistency across networks. But both the hotel's network and Kubi provided crystal-clear audio consistently across many calls.

Cost savings
Over the course of the 10 days in Europe, I clocked 17 hours of Wi-Fi talk time while running the business, participating in a board meeting, conferring with current and future investors and speaking with my family. At $1.50 per minute roaming, Wi-Fi saved my company more than $1,500 on that one trip alone.

What does it say about the cost of travel, when phone expenses are likely to be more than airfare costs during a single trip?

There were occasions where I was outside the hotel and conference center and Wi-Fi wasn't available. But it wasn't a problem, since I made those calls over GSM, and the 50 or so minutes only ran up about $75 of charges.

In speaking with Europeans, I've found that this isn't just a North American issue. Colleagues I ran into from the U.K. were either carrying multiple phones or SIM cards to avoid roaming charges in Spain. For example, one Brit I know has separate phones for France and Spain, since he travels frequently to those countries. The problem, of course, is that beyond carrying additional bulk, he had to use different phone numbers depending on which country he was in.

The European Commission is proposing to regulate roaming charges in Europe, but the wireless industry says that would stifle innovation. So it remains to see what will come of this.

While business is likely to lead the way in using dual-mode phones, I expect that consumers won't be far behind. After all, once Wi-Fi becomes ubiquitous, and seamless handoff capabilities between cellular and Wi-Fi zones become more pervasive, who wouldn't want to be able to use whichever technology--Wi-Fi or cellular--offered the better signal at a given moment, regardless of whether cost savings were involved? The technology for seamless handoffs already exists (that's another column). It's just a matter of time before these capabilities get built in to more mobile devices.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly labeled the term "service set identifier."