According to a recent study by Currys, students would sooner buy a wireless router than an iron. Wireless Internet access is spreading fast, from homes to cafes and hotels. There are even plans to give whole cities wireless Internet access, either using Wi-Fi (eg in Norwich and San Francisco) or using WiMax, a long-range wireless broadband technology (eg in Milton Keynes).
More and more smart phones feature built-in Wi-Fi adaptors and there are even handsets designed to connect to specific wireless routers. Vonage, among others, has launched a phone that is pitched as a landline replacement -- the WiFi UTStarcom F1000. Netgear is launching a wireless Skype phone and you can now use Skype on your Wi-Fi enabled Pocket PC. There are even rumours that Skype is developing its software for phones running on the Symbian OS, which is used on many Nokia handsets.
This is interesting because making a phone call over the Internet is pretty cheap, or even free if the other person uses the same Internet telephony software. Put city-wide wireless Internet coverage and Wi-Fi or WiMax-enabled handsets together, and what you get is the death of mobile phone networks and the start of the mobile VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) revolution.
There are a few hurdles that need to be overcome, though. First off, setting up a city-wide wireless network isn't cheap and needs major backing before any real progress can be made. There's also the issue of whether it will be free, or whether there will be a subscription charge, which could end up as expensive as mobile network tariffs. Another problem is that if there are loads of users, each user will get little bandwidth, possibly affecting call quality.
But the biggest problem isn't technological, but commercial. The mobile phone industry is making too much money charging us for mobile phone calls to want to invest in a technology that will not make it as much profit. Not all the major players think Internet telephony is a bad idea -- Nokia, Motorola and Intel fully back the technology -- but more companies need to get involved before it becomes a viable alternative to current mobile phone networks.
One solution that will move things forward is if we start investing in VoIP phones now and scour the streets for open Wi-Fi hotspots. Not an easy task, but it is up to us to make the change. If enough of us invest in the technology, it will force it into the limelight and into the minds of potential investors. The revolution for cheaper calls and Internet access is within our grasp. Are you in? -Andrew Lim