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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Truphone.... redefining the mobile operator

Recently, I've been speaking to an awful lot of software firms who have "wireless VoIP" somewhere in their company description. Not that this is entirely new: softphone vendors targetting wireless PDAs and dual-mode phones have been around for ages - Cicero, Firsthand and so on. Then there's been the well-known migration of Skype towards handsets, as well as Nokia's own VoIP efforts on the E-series and other devices.

But most people would have noticed the sudden explosion of weirdly-named companies hoping to capture the Web 2.0 community spirit, coupling a device-side client to some sort of web-based server solution. Some use SIP, some use their own protocol. Fring, Jajah, Woize have all had their PR people in touch with me, and I'm aware of Mobiboo, Roq Viper and assorted others, most of which are just too embarassingly-monikered for me to talk to with a straight face.

But the company that I've encountered more "in the wild" than others has been Truphone, who seem to have been doing the rounds of conferences, exhibitions and assorted PR opportunities in an extremely assiduous fashion.

I have to confess that until yesterday I'd just thought "yeah, they're wireless VoIP supplier #37, whatever....". But then I had a rather interesting chat with their CTO at the Symbian show, where they had a stand, which rather opened my eyes.

I'd asked for a demo,and had one of their marketing guys call me via WiFi from a Nokia phone to my normal circuit-switched handset. No big deal, just standard VoWLAN via a SIP server, I thought (OK voice quality), until I looked at the caller ID... which was a mobile number starting in 07....

So, out of curiosity, I asked "what happens if I send an SMS to that number?".... and it worked. No cludged SMS-to-IM nonsense, it just works as SMS. Truphone apparently has an SMSC, and also manages to "hijack" the native Symbian/Nokia SMS client rather than needing a separate piece of software and in-box.

So far, so good. So, this is another weapon in the epic fight between the Virtuous Licenced Mobile Operators and Dastardly Upstart Over-the-Top VoIP providers, then?

No. There's a big difference, which really surprised me.

What, I wonder, do most people define as "a mobile operator"? A company owning spectrum? A company issuing SIM cards? A company with a network? Do MVNOs count?

How about this: a company with a mobile operator licence. But no spectrum. Nor MSCs, HLRs or all the rest of it. But with an approved (by Ofcom) tariff plan, and - get this - it's own mobile number range. Truphone is a not a VoIP company competing against mobile operators, it is a VoIP company that is a mobile operator in the eyes of the UK regulator.

Apparently, there's a whole bunch of bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through before this option is open to a new entrant. Apparently , the UK is a bit of a special case because of the regulatory regime. And apparently there's some interesting things this might mean in terms of regulatory precedents in the EU. And presumably as an "official" operator, there's all sorts of implications in terms of regulator-mandated requirements for interconnect, roaming etc. But I'll let someone else fill in the gaps.

(Note: although early Truphone users have got 07624 Isle-of-Man numbers - which apparently the ludicrous-sounding Mobiboo does as well - this isn't the whole story).

In the past, I've wondered whether it was important to have a dual-mode phone with two numbers - a normal mobile number and a fixed/SIP one. Various other FMC-type solutions like the various German cellular HomeZones also give you two numbers, fixed and cellular. Some enterprise "mobile extension" services try and "cloak" your employees' mobile handsets by just giving out a corporate fixed numbers (but SMS knocks this on the head).

But I think this is the first time someone's shown me a mobile with two mobile numbers provided by different operators. (OK, apart from some of the concepts Martin Wren-Hilton mentioned about Coffee Telecom, before he joined the estimable Mr Dunstone at CPW).

I'm still trying to get my head around where this puts Truphone on the overall mobile map. Perhaps the best way of thinking of it, is as an MVNO (which doesn't need a host MNO - ie "virtual" in the sense of no spectrum or infrastructure. But... when in range of WiFi... all the numbering & regulatory benefits of being a "real" operator.

Perhaps not so much "over the top" as "shortcut throught the middle".

(Commercial plug - I do a lot of work on consulting / advising firms around the FMC / VoIP / IMS space, although Truphone itself is not a current client. If this is of interest, please contact me)


Martin Geddes said...

A few thoughts:
- He who controls the UI owns the customer. Not anything in the middle of teh value chain, although those influence who controls the UI.
- As Truphone gives out the Truphone caller ID, not the parisitised operator ID, it's the ultimate in viral self-marketing.
- They get to make all their money on inbound termination fees, with none of the infrastructure costs.

I'm not normally very keen on arbitrage plays, but this one is a stunner.

Anonymous said...

They pass new laws for this sort of thing, don't they. :-)

Anonymous said...

So what are users expected to do, go to WiFi zones to make calls with this mobile operator? If they can strike an roaming deal, this would make more sense to me...

AS said...

...and the savings on your MNO bill are enormous if you start using (( truphone )). I guess we all use our mobiles subconsciously in our homes and offices more often than we think. And we run up 100's of £$€ of phone bill, unnecessary I guess... (since we have an alternative route out... WiFi)...

Anonymous said...

The following forum has Stories of Savings by (( truphone )) users

Anonymous said...

so the argument is that you can use the phone in some locations and save money... i can use skype in these locations today... so what is the big deal...

you are suggesting that truephone + regular cellular phone subscription < regular cellular subscription...

i don;t see how this is a sustainable business model....

Anonymous said...

Jordan telecom is offering a VoIP service bundled with a special DSL package including a special number other than the fixed-line one (in what seems a newly mapped VoIP number range by the regulator) connected through DSL & a courtesy fixed VoIP set (directly to the router and not through a PC) to make use of the promoted unlimited national & specially international VoIP-like priced calls!

Very clever by an incumbent operator that offers separate landlines, ISP and mobile services to counter the rise of calling-card based VoIP offers.

and i can see how can TruPhone along other VoIP operators making good money from termination charges while parasite-ing on others mobile network.

theukmobilereport.com said...

Hi Dean. Interesting piece. Only problem is I have been in touch with Truphone regarding reviewing their software for 'The UK Mobile Report'. To my surprise they told me that they don't advise me to test it on public WiFi networks as apparently it is a bit difficult to do so. So bearing this in mind I think many are getting the wrong impression of the potential of this (for the moment at least)

Ken Young
The UK Mobile Report

Anonymous said...

Ken, the exact words I used to you were (by email): "you really won't enjoy the 'proper' experience of Truphone using it solely from a public WiFi hotspot, although it's entirely straightforward to do".

This is because, at present, a user needs to use the phone's browser to roam to the public hotspot's landing page and register (usually requiring a subscription) before they can use Truphone.

This is clearly not as elegant as walking into range of an access point already set up on your phone, such as your home or office, in which case Truphone automatically locks onto it.

Nowhere did we say it was difficult.

The process will, of course, be resolved with roaming deals that provide for automatic authentication.

Tim Donnelly Smith
Both Barrels Communications Ltd.
on behalf of Truphone

Anonymous said...

I use Truphone via 3G here in Indonesia. 3G gives me a citywide 384 Kbit connection, which is plenty for Truphone.

The result is amazingly clear calls - as good as I get from WiFi. I called my sister in France the other day via 3G with Truphone. I had a headset on, and just kept the phone in my pocket. I spoke to her for over an hour as I walked two miles. Rock solid. 60 minutes of Truphone via 3G used 21.2 megs of bandwidth. Based on my plan og 250 megs for $10/month, the call cost me 85 cents - for the hour !
My take is - forget wi-fi - Truphone over 3G is incredible. Registers in 1 second flat as well.

Anonymous said...

One of Truphone's major benefits is often ignored or not made obvious enough. Dialling a Truphone number will connect to a Truphone user via VoIP if online (connected)-the cost of this to the receiving Truphone user being between nil and tiny depending on connection (already established). And this is worldwide. However, if not connected the call will forward to the designate GSM number (switchable feature)- truly a one number service. So when roaming, instead of having calls forwarded by your operator at INTL roaming rates, you pop a local SIM in, update the forward number, and your forwarding costs are Truphone to the "INTL" destination. Happy Days!!!

Gavin Miller
Truphone Customer Service