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Mobile Skype: Quality Issues?

VOIP peer-to-peer pioneer Skype on Tuesday made a big move by porting its popular desktop VOIP client to certain wireless handhelds. Sounds neat, but now that the news has digested, the big question appears to be: Will it really be worth it?

Skype's introduced a PDA version that will work with 802.11b-enabled Pocket PC handhelds with more than 40 Mbytes of memory onboard (see Skype Me? Skype You! on the regular Skype client). In theory, this is an application that enables users to -- at least partially -- bypass wireless carriers: If users live in an area with plentiful WiFi hotspot access and all their friends and family use Skype.

That's a big if, if you consider the nature of hotspot coverage when compared with traditional mobile networks: It's spotty, at best. Wireless LAN analysts also question how well Skype will work with current 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) networks, which aren't exactly designed with voice communications in mind. Start with the technical problems that could make the Skype client a frustrating mode for voice communication. 802.11b wireless LAN networks operating in the relatively crowded public 2.4GHz band can be prone to interference from other WiFi users, Bluetooth radios, microwave ovens, cordless phones, and cats in heat, which all operate in the same frequency range (see N+I: Noise Report).

Furthermore, there are no quality-of-service (QOS) capabilities in the 802.11b standard. This means that if several users are connected to the same WiFi hotspot at once, there is no way of prioritizing a voice call over data signals. Loss of call quality is likely. QOS in the 802.11 standard is not likely to be addressed until the e extension is ratified later this year (see Is 802.11 Ready for VOIP?).

”It's definitely going to be questionable as to the overall quality,” opines Craig Mathias at the Farpoint Group consulting and analyst group. He also wonders what kind of battery life Skype users can expect from their PDAs.

It’s not going to be what we would call business class,” concurs Chris Kozup at Meta Group Inc. We called and emailed the Skype folks for more details on the mobile product but had no reply by press time.

Still, as Mathias notes, there still aren’t that many people using hotspots, so some of these quality issues may not be so pressing yet.

”Anyway, you get what you pay for -- and this is free,” he chuckles.

This brings us to the last question: Is it really free? [Ed. note: Can any man be free?] Many PDA users will need for-pay 802.11 services to cover various geographic areas when free hotspots aren't available. So the user is indeed paying for a connection -- perhaps at an even higher rate than it costs to make a call on a mobile phone.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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