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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.