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EarthLink's Cheap WiFi Vision

Google-phone or not, EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) wants to make its municipal WiFi mesh networks more directly competitive with services from cellular carriers.

EarthLink has signed up Accton Technology Corp. to make WiFi handsets that will work over the networks it's setting up in places like San Francisco. That would let users to make cheap wireless calls over the Internet. EarthLink is beta testing the idea on a municipal wireless network in Anaheim, Calif. (See EarthLink Tests WiFi Phone .)

"What separates our WiFi phone from others is its ability to work over EarthLink's municipal WiFi networks," said Steve Howe, EarthLink's senior vice president of voice, in the announcement. "This means that EarthLink is now bringing cheap phone calls using the Internet to the world of mobile – a major breakthrough. We expect that many people who use cell phones today in our municipal WiFi markets will want to switch to a WiFi phone to take advantage of the significant cost savings."

Call me a geek if you like, but this is huge news. I don't think it would be overstating the case to say that EarthLink's phone – and others no doubt being worked on as we speak – represents a real step towards delivering on the promise of municipal networking and WiFi itself. Remember, back at the turn of the century, when 802.11b was young and talking heads got lathered up about how WiFi would help the average Joe break from the tyranny of cellular? (I paraphrase, but you get the gist.)

Well, being able to make cheap calls over the Internet while wandering out and about in your neighborhood is about as close as some of us are going to get to that utopian dream. It might not seem like a revolution, but I suspect even the prospect of it has cellular carriers feeling nervy.

There is, however, one important question to ask before we get too carried away with muni fervor: How well will this stuff work?

I don't know the answer yet and probably won't for a year or more, simply because there's no way for me to do a comprehensive test on WiFi mesh VOIP. There's a distinct lack of phones, and many of the networks aren't really in place yet.

Here's what I do know:

  • In areas where there is a lot of WiFi activity, your signal can definitely be subject to some serious interference, and it can even be diffcult to access open networks at times.

  • WiFi VOIP is definitely acceptable for calls as long as there aren't too many other users around.

  • Signal management software can help to mitigate interference problems.

  • Tropos Networks Inc. – one of EarthLink's suppliers for the mesh network – has been building more tools into its kit that enable operators to set service-level agreements and such-like, which could be interesting if EarthLink is looking at offering a tiered service.
I think the emergence of the EarthLink handsets and other devices is going to present an interesting question for users in mesh network coverage areas. You're probably going to have to live with spotty calls and other issues when using this phone. At what point does the service become cheap enough for you to live with its limitations?

EarthLink hasn't said anything about prices, but they have used the words "cheap" and "inexpensive." Skype Ltd. has shown that people will live with limitations if the service is free. Will the same hold true for "cheap"?

Well, if you look at your current cellular service, the answer is probably "yes." Like most people, I have bad connections, dropped calls, and some serious coverage blackspots when using my mobile phone. More of the same for less dollars doesn't sound too bad.

Don't get me wrong. When EarthLink releases this handset, neither you nor I will be able to junk our cellphones. In fact, that will likely never happen. There's no muni coverage worth shaking a stick at in the U.S., when compared to cellular networks. An EarthLink user would be restricted to making calls in his neighborhood and maybe in the wider town or city if the network is ready. If you make a lot of cell calls in your immediate area, however, the EarthLink phone might help you cut some costs.

And that’s an inkling of a future imperfect for traditional cellular operators, as users get more ways to shift minutes they would have spent on cellular onto cheaper WiFi services. It might also help answer why there aren't more dualmode cellular and WiFi devices available in the U.S: Simply because most carriers don't want to risk losing those minutes to WiFi. I don't think they'll be able to stop that in the long run, though, if WiFi networks can provide decent enough service.

By the way, if you're interested in municipal networks, you'll probably enjoy our new weekly broadband newsletter and column. We'll be keeping an eagle-eye on developments in mesh networking and the wider wireless broadband market as it evolves. The new features will be launched tomorrow (Wednesday).

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

IPobserver 12/5/2012 | 3:11:51 PM
re: EarthLink's Cheap WiFi Vision Any pictures of this phone knockling around the web? It sounds kind of clunky.
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