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Do WiFi-based VoIP phones really scale?

Over on GigaOm blog, Om Malik notes the sudden discussion/hype of WiFi VoIP handsets, making particular reference to today’s New York Times article on the subject.

(One should note that Belkin just released a WiFi Skype handset, just behind similar offerings from Netgear and SMC… So similar in fact, they are probably all from the same OEM)

SMC Skype WiFi handset

One of the aspects people don’t seem to be talking about is how ‘aggressively’ the phones automatically connect to open WiFi. Frankly, there are issues both ways, regardless of whether they connect to anything available or only when one explicity tells the unit to connect to a given base station.

As a consumer, I would expect that any such device (whilst sitting in my pocket) would be constantly monitoring the available wifi access points and connecting to the best open wifi coverage accordingly – unless a known private hotspot was in range. This is what I mean by ‘aggressively connecting’ – and is essentially the same method cell phones use to ensure they are constantly online.

I’m yet to get my hands on a NetGear/Belkin/SMC skype phone but I’m lead to believe that they don’t do this. I’ve had a go of the Sony Mylo and was disappointed to see that it needed to be instructed on which base stations to connect to. It wouldn’t just conncect automatically to anything going.

This seems to really miss the point. How can I receive incoming calls via a SkypeIn number if the phone is not online unless I tell it to connect when I’m about to make an outgoing call?

The reasons I’ve heard for this decision include:

  1. Device makers removing any liability. If you explicitly connected to an open wifi node, then you are liable for any legal issues that raises. If the phone auto-connects than the device manufacture is. It’s a grey area, of course, as to whether connecting and using someone else’s WiFi connection without their permission is really legal or not.
  2. Pressure by Skype on not having to process a constant flow of reconnects as you pass between coverage. Skype is a propriatary application, of course, so Skype could easily stipulate such functionality as part of any agreement with the OEM.

    BTW, it’s alleged this is one of the reasons why using mobile phones in airplanes is banned – over land your phone would be constantly negotiating with base stations due to the speed of the aircraft – increasing the load on the mobile network.

  3. The possibility that the idea doesn’t scale… if you lived in an urban area with an open WiFi node, and everyone had auto-connecting phones you could suddenly find your base station having to deal with a constant flow of say 20 or 30+ connections at any time. This would reduce performance and over time lead to more people taking their WiFi private. With fewer and fewer open WiFi nodes, much of the selling point of these phones is thereby removed.

As much as I am excited by the possibility these phones raise, the last point seems particularly valid.

As the prevalence of WiFi devices increases, esp into second-tier usage like phones, surely we can only expect a dilution of open WiFi nodes?

People offer open WiFi for different reasons: out of kindness, out of service and out of ignorance.

Kindness only goes so far, and if that kindness is abused then the availability is simply taken away. So many devices connecting to poor Joe Brown’s WiFi router is only going to abuse that kindness – and perhaps lead to it’s closure.

Service, such as coffee shops, is slowly closing up too. I’ve noticed recently many places are now only giving out WEP/WPA keys on request (so no auto-connect on your phone if you don’t know the code) to prevent those from accessing who are not customers. There’s also a lot of discussion, especially here in San Francisco, as to whether coffee shops should remove Internet access altogether, to stem the tide of such establishments becoming nomadic offices for Web2.0 startups, etc.

And ignorance is slowly changing – many routers now come closed by default and people are understanding more about the equipment they are buying… perhaps that’s a good thing as I do feel it unfair to use someone’s internet connection if they didn’t knowingly intend for it to be used publicly.

So I still don’t know what to make of these phones. If they don’t auto-connect then they seem a bit pointless.

But if they do auto-connect, and loads of people have them, then the additional load on people’s WiFi may ultimately have a negative effect on the availability of open hotspots. And that would have an adverse effect on all of us laptop users, not just VoIP WiFi handset owners.

Published in Gadgets News Thoughts and Rants


  1. sam sam

    Im still not convinced with these wifi phones either – I read that some service providers (I think it was O2), charge you a monthly rate for the luxury of using the wifi service of the phone. Kinda defies the point of having it.

    Also, one reason for not aggresively connecting could be the security risk – the connection goes both ways. By having to choose which network to connect to, the end user can connect to trusted networks (although this could be automated?).

    Will be interesting to see if it does take off or not 🙂

  2. You make a good point on the signaling issue – there are two reasons for banning phones on aircraft, one is what you mentioned (in the late 90s, a private pilot brought down a big chunk of a UK’s mobile network in East Anglia by making a call while he was flying), and the other is the possible interference the devices may cause to the aircraft’s own electronics. Anything that goes into an aircraft has to pass a very rigorous set of tests in order to be certified. Mobile phones are not certified in such way, and thus are not allowed to function. Devices such as laptops, iPods and so on also emit some RF radiation, but at ridiculously lower power levels than mobile phones.

    Mobile phone networks use what are known as location areas, which group cell base stations that are located in a specific geographical region. Any mobile phone that has registered with the network within a specific LA will not contact the network again until it moves to another LA, or is queried by the network, or has a set re-registration timeout. The phone will switch from base station to base station as required as it moves around the LA, but will not re-register each time. If the network needs to contact the phone, for example, to deliver an incoming SMS, it will first send a broadcast poll over all the base stations in the LA where the phone is registered.

    There are various reasons for this: the phone saves power, by not having to send data every time it changes base station, the network does not have a flood of traffic to deal with just with phones madly re-registering, and call setup is more efficient.

    Translate this to WiFi, and as you mention, things are hairy. A WiFi phone moving about would have to send the complete set of signals every time it changed AP, which would mean a battery life of a few minutes (well, maybe a bit more…).

  3. I just bought and set up a Belkin Skype phone to “see what it does”. I found myself asking just the same questions as you pose in your blog. Driving through central London I could see it finding networks at the traffic lights but not connecting. It poses a lot of questions about how Voip may evolve and I wonder if the likes of Belkin have thought through how to apply it practically.
    I have my laptop on right now. It is connected to Skype but the Belkin phone is right next to it. Which one connects first? I want the phone to connect when the laptop isn’t on, if the two are on I want the laptop to take priority because its video capability and because I also use Skype for its chat capability. It also acts as a sort of employee in/out indicator. I can work at home and see who is at their computer and type simple notes to them. I cant understand why the phone has no chat (a blackberry has a keyboard so why not this) and as such it might be a better tool as a free text device where messages are delivered when somebody logs on. This all poses some serious questions about the growth of this technolgy.
    WRT the free use of WiFi in Finland there is almost total wifi coverage in cities making such phones ideal. A valid ISP account allows you to connect to any of them. In pursuance of this I deliberately left public access to my wireless router so others could use it, my only concern being bandwidth. This worry that could be eliminated by building into router firmware simple rules concerning the ‘length of stay’ and proportion of bandwidth we allow others to use. The public interest would suggest the encouragement of this user centric approach but I do not expect the commercial companies to take this view. So sadly I think unless there is a groundswell of user-pull this technology will go nowhere.

  4. Charles Preston Charles Preston

    As to connecting to people’s WiFi networks, without their knowledge and permission – it is illegal by U.S. federal law. Many states also have laws about unauthorized use of computing resources. People are rarely prosecuted, but it has happened.

    By many ISP agreements, it is a violation to allow neighborhood/public access. Companies engineer and provision their networks with certain traffic assumptions. Then they set a price for access based on bandwidth allocation. Let’s say your $20/mo. home Internet connection goes from 3% capacity use over 24 hours like the average home user, to 50% because 20 people are using it. At least some of those people are probably regular nearby WLAN users, who won’t pay $20/mo., so the projected income per byte of bandwidth is way down. The person providing the “free” bandwidth isn’t a legal common carrier, who is not responsible for the content of the traffic carried.

    The person providing the bandwidth risks the loss of their $20/mo. connection for violating the agreement, and stands to be investigated for attacks or for criminal content through their network.

  5. Robert Robert

    I own a netgear skype phone. I don’t see anyone taking these phones seriously. Don’t take me wrong, they’re a lot of fun to use but it’s more of a curiosity than the real thing. Wifi owners shouldn’t worry about them. The majority skype users carry cell phones with them anyway. The fun part, with all of this, at least for me, is to embrace the new technology and enjoy it while you can.
    Lets face it, an empty coffee house is not so much fun to visit. What do we have to loose? Kindness usually pay off at the end.

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