Who needs 3G? Lets just go Wifi!

Netgear SPH101I finally tried out a Skype-Wifi phone this weekend. The Netgear Skype Wifi phone SPH101 was on display at a local IT-exhibition here in Pune. The phone was already preconfigured to pick up on the Wifi network at the Netgear stall. I picked up the phone, signed into my skype account and made a local call. The call clarity and quality were average and I enjoyed the feel of the keys and the overall skype experience. The keys were configured similar to any other standard phone with 3 alphabets to a key. The phone retails for approximately Rs. 15,500.00 in India, not a small order by any measure.

The Wifi phone itself not really a revolutionary breakthrough. Skype has been bundled with other data-enabled phones in the past – specifically, Pocket PC and Windows mobile. Also, at that price-point, the Wifi phone does not exactly make sense as a replacement for a fixed line telephone. But what makes Skype exciting to me is the idea of a global identity. With Skype you no longer need to know my locally relevent contact number, area code and country code. I can also purchase local numbers in different countries using SkypeIn and have those identities map to my single Skype identity. The global traveler (ahem ;)) could stay connected wherever there is a civilized airport with Wifi.

As long as I am signed into Skype that is. Mobile data connectivity here in India is a story by itself. I am currently signed into GPRS with AirTel. Depending on the day, month, time, latitude, longitude, environment, and of course – depending on how the god of the air feels (Vayu), I could get average connectivity or no connectivity at all.

Could Skype on 3G change all that? Skype is still exploring VoIP on the Hutchison 3G networks in Europe starting way back in Febuary.

In an effort to scope user demand, 3 Sweden is offering a Skype bundle with a 3G flat-rate subscription and 3G data card. With a mobile flat-rate data plan from Hutchison 3, users can make unlimited Skype calls. Christian Salbaing, MD of Europe Telecommunications at Hutchison 3, downplayed concerns that Skype traffic would cannibalise voice revenues. He described it as an attractive value added service that would help tempt more customers onto its network.

The pleasures of flat-rate dialing were too tempting to resist. As I placed the SPH101 down and turned around to leave the Netgear stall – my thoughts were all about the current 3G bids taking place in India. Is there a solution on the cards?

Just then, my eyes landed on the stalls of a popular VoIP provider in India – Phonewala. Phonewala were offering Broadband+VoIP-enabled PCO’s (for those interested, PCO is short for Public Call Office). With a simple Linksys phone adapter (approximately Rs. 4200), Broadband connection (Rs. 900 p.m for 256kbps) and a handset – PCO’s could offer “dial the world at Rs. 2.99/-“. Great, the local tea-stall owner can now call his cousin in Atlanta at rock-bottom rates.

Brilliant! What if PCO’s began offering Wifi? The entire city of Pune would be connected within a few days. We could give some of the big wireless guys a run for their money. Of course, there remains the question of how would the poor PCO operator get paid? But then with our history of socialism – I am sure the city municipal can work something out 🙂 (for those not laughing yet, please don’t mind my rambling).

At the end of the day, the Indian private wireless providers just don’t want to have to do anything that might disturb their revenues. I wish they would stop haggling and seed a long-delayed wireless data revolution in India. Sure voice revenues would start to whittle down – try focusing on areas where there is real value.

Oh and just so that you should know, using Skype in India is not politically correct according to the Economic Times – “Illegal web calls by BPO face axe“.