If you go to Google Trends and do a search on free wifi calling the following graph will appear.
Why is there so much interest in free Wi-Fi calling?
First of all, since the Internet was popularized in the 1990s, there has been a large faction of technologists who predicted that digitized/packetized (Voice Over IP) voice services would ultimately become a free feature on the Internet. We’re not quite there yet. Most people still have to pay for Internet service or access, but people now have a wide array of options for running incrementally free voice and video communication over their web service.
The primary driver of wifi calling is illustrated by the difference in analog vs digital communication. Analog calls cease an entire circuit and bandwidth for the voice or video traffic traveling over it. Digital communication is alternatively chopped up into little packets which can share the highway with other people’s packets and can be routed along many paths — ultimately making more efficient use of the underlying network.
The scarcity and expense of running cellular wireless networks is driving network providers to offload traffic onto their fiber-based terrestrial networks. Because many subscriber contracts do not provide increased revenue from increased voice usage, it makes sense for phone service providers companies to find ways to more economically move voice and video traffic.
The world continues to be a smaller and smaller place, global communication has increased and more and more people will find ways to save on international calling. Also, many developing countries who have never constructed conventional phone networks are starting from digital, skipping the analog first step entirely.
Apple has been rolling out its Continuity features for over a year that allow Apple devices — Macs, Watches, iPads and iPhones — to seamlessly support Wi-Fi calling. But it takes two to tango so the wireless carriers have to provide support for these connected devices. AT&T is now testing its NumberSync technology which will work with the latest iOS version 9.2 to support Apple Continuity features.
This means customers using Apple devices on AT&T’s network will soon be able to receive Wi-Fi calls on their Apple devices even if the subscriber is not connected to AT&T’s cellular network.
This technology, often called twinning, allows multiple devices to share a single number, even if the device doesn’t have a Sim card. The goal is to enable subscribers to use the device of their choice when it is most convenient and it is expected to ultimately extend to untethered Apple watches and ultimately automobiles.
Things are getting confusing again in the cable-telecom-wireless network space. Most cable companies already provide voice phone services to their subscribers along with television and Internet access. Many are now looking at wireless options. Specifically, Comcast, charter, Time Warner cable and Bright House are considering taking advantage of historical contracts that will allow the cable giants to use Verizon’s LTE network spectrum.
Most of these cable companies are considering introducing new hybrid services that would combine Wi-Fil calling with cellular calling. The cellular network will bridge the space between local Wi-Fi public or private hotspots — what some have called “mobile virtual networks”, similar to the hybrid network Liberty Global provides in Europe. It’s also similar to companies like Republic Wireless and Goolgle’s Project Fi.
The thought is that much of the overall bandwidth traffic could be offloaded to office/home/hotspot terrestrial networks, reducing overhead and capacity burdens of scarce cellular bandwidth.
While none of the earlier mentioned cable companies have announced services, Verizon has indicated that many of them are planning to take advantage of a 2011 MVNO agreement that would allow the cable companies to piggyback on Verizon’s cellular network.
Wi-fi calling is very hot and the big cable companies in the US are getting ready to roll out services that will allow their subscribers to take advantage of it. Just getting to the finish line are AT&T and Verizon, both who recently released versions of wi-fi calling before then next competitive behemoth battle begins.
AT&T announced that iPhone subscribers using iOS9, the latest mobile operating system, will now be able to use Wi-Fi calling. AT&T subscribers must be in a geographic area supported by AT&T’s HD voice services. No additional applications are necessary but subscribers must go to their phone settings once they are in an HD voice geography and activate the Wi-Fi calling feature. Users will also be required to provide an address for emergency 911 service support.
Verizon iPhone subscribers can also now use Wi-Fi calling but they will be required to download the Verizon Messages app first. The app will only work on the latestiOS9 operating system end-users will need to enable Wi-Fi calling once the application is activated.
Vodafone is launching a new Wi-Fi calling feature that does not require users to launch a separate smart phone app. The service will allow Vodafone subscribers to make calls and send texts from public or private Wi-Fi networks when a normal cellular signal is either weak or nonexistent.
Vodafone has not announced a firm date for the launch, nor has it announced the specific list of phone models the service will work with. The service will not be able to elegantly hand off a Wi-Fi call to a cellular network as people move between different network support environments — that capability will be delivered eventually when Vodafone begins to support VoLTE – Voice over LTE services.
Vodafone hopes the new service will increase call qualities and reach while further taking pressure off its internal wireless networks.
AT&T and Sprint cellular networks joined T-Mobile in supporting free Wi-Fi calling with the latest beta version of the Apple iOS 9 operating system. Wireless carriers are excited about this because they will be able to offload voice and data users while at the same time providing a more consistent experience for their iPhone users. Wi-Fi users will be able to call, text and send data which will not count against limited voice minutes or data volumes.
Apple is also adding a very useful feature called “Wi-Fi Assist” in the new beta release. Previously, if an iPhone latched on to a weak hotspot, the user was required to manually turn off Wi-Fi network access in the general settings configurations to return to a stronger cellular signal. Wi-Fi Assist will now automatically switches a mobile users connection to a stronger 3G or 4G signal if an underperforming hotspot or home network is detected. This new feature should increase stability and improve performance for iPhone users overall.
Sprint has published a FAQ detailing its Sprint Wi-Fi calling details but AT&T has yet to provide anything similar. The iOS 9 beta period will run through the rest of the summer and a final version is expected for consumers this Fall.
We all know the difficulty of maintaining cell phone calls in rural areas sometimes in building basements. The cell towers that provide our network for making voice calls sometimes run out of coverage or the signal cannot penetrate the space we are in. There is a growing trend now to have secondary access available via Wi-Fi.
Lots of times when you run out of cell network there is Internet access nearby – either free hotspots or your own broadband connection. Google Fi, Republic Wireless and FreedomPop provide phones that run on other cellular networks but they try to find Wi-Fi networks to push calls over first. These companies not only provide service in non-cellular areas but they can often provide it at a lower price.
These are good solutions for people who are living in cellular dead zones, places where landline service is available but cell coverage is spotty or non-existent. There is no cellular network provider that allows them to use their cell phone from their home.
In addition, you are now no longer required to exclusively use a phone as your communication device. You can also use other Wi-Fi enabled tablets or PCs to make voice and video calls.
Because some cellular networks do not have upgraded bandwidth, wifi networks often provide faster throughput to support higher quality voice calls and video calls.
This blended Wi-Fi and cellular coverage seems to be an architecture that will help consumers lower their overall costs of communication. It will also enable new companies to enter the “voice and video calling” market, formally dominated by “phone companies”, as more and more incumbent networks are willing to wholesale access to maintain/grow revenue.
Skype for Web is a confusing name — it should be called Skype Plugins for Browsers, as it is a free calling application that runs on browsers (Safari, Chrome, IE, Firefox) where you may not be running the desktop standalone application or the mobile app. Many are anticipating that people will add Skype to their browser mostly for browser-based instant messaging. In fact, the Chromebook version is limited only to instant messaging – no video or audio calling yet.
The service is free and has been in controlled beta testing in the United States and the UK. In order to receive calls you will have to be logged in to the service. This is the next step towards what Microsoft and Google call web real-time communication APIs (WebRTC) that will enable browser to browser communicating.
There were two interesting developments this past week that should interest anyone wants to make free calls on Wi-Fi networks.
The first was a rumor that Microsoft is about to launch a worldwide Wi-Fi network that promises to provide service to mobile devices users and to seamlessly transition them between hotspots. Microsoft Wi-Fi is rumored to be platform-agnostic meaning any type of mobile device running any sort of operating system should be able to use the service. It is not clear if the service will be free or exactly how many hotspots will be available when it is introduced. The service is designed to serve mobile users with high bandwidth wireless access who may be outside cellular coverage.
This makes sense for Microsoft because of it’s Skype purchase and the fact that more advertising budgets are moving toward mobile devices and networks.
The second news item making headlines is a wifi hotspot provider in South Africa called AlwaysOn who will be launching free Wi-Fi calling services (free calls to AlwaysOn subscribers) to out-of-cellular-range users or users who want higher-speed service. The new service is designed to offload cellular networks onto Wi-Fi networks and provide always on users greater choice, also providing higher bandwidth where 3G cellular availability is scarce.
AlwaysOn provides another OTT (Over the Top) option, similar to WhatsApp and Skype, but also provides the fundamental network access.
Facebook announced this week the availability of free video calling using their messenger VoIP app in Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Laos, Lithuania, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, the UK, the US and Uruguay. They say they will be introducing the Into other countries soon. The following video explains how the app works.
During an earlier Q1 2015 earnings call this month, Facebook revealed that Messenger now makes up 10% of global mobile voice over IP calls – that is a lot of traffic. Facebook believes the higher-quality audio of VOIP calls over traditional cellular phone calls is what will drive further growth. Facebook is probably also counting on the fact that messenger can access your built-in Facebook contact list of friends.
Facebook has constructed their own video call in the structure and now is in a position to compete with other mobile calling apps that leverage wifi like Apple Facetime, Microsoft Skype and Google Hangouts. The app adapts well to the type of mobile phone you’re using and your available bandwidth, also allowing you to turn off video and conduct audio-only calls to save on bandwidth.
Facebook does not intend to merge Messenger services with their WhatsApp service as they feel it is important to keep segmented populations for video/audio calling versus SMS. The Messenger app runs on Apple IOS, Windows and Android mobile phones.