iPhone, BlackBerry users can make VoIP calls over 3G

New Agito software shifts smartphone voice calls to cheaper data plans

Agito Networks says it can dramatically cut enterprise cell phone costs with a new software release that lets iPhone and BlackBerry handsets make VoIP calls over 3G data connections.

With its newest software, Agito lets a cell phone user place a voice call as a VoIP data connection, over a 3G cellular network. The cost of cellular calls, especially those with international roaming charges, can be cut by as much as 80% in some cases, according to company officials.

Agito's focus is now less on a grand scheme for unifying all enterprise communications and more on managing and reducing cell phone costs. Cost control was the No.1 problem that enterprise users repeatedly and insistently harped on, according to Pejman Roshan, Agito's co-founder and vice president of marketing. "They were fixated on that one key problem," he says.

Do you have any idea how much money you're wasting on international wireless services? 

The new release, Version 4.0, of Agito RoamAnywhere Mobility Router, and its corresponding handset clients, was designed to fix that fixation. The new code supports enterprise VoIP calls over 3G cellular networks, an industry first according to Agito executives, by the Apple iPhone and the BlackBerry Bold 9700 smartphone. Agito earlier supported the BlackBerry Tour and BlackBerry Curve, and the 4.0 release also works with the Wi-Fi-only iPod Touch.

"Any enterprise with people traveling [with cell phones] can take advantage of this," says Paul DeBeasi, vice president and Research Director for Network and Telecom Strategies at Gartner. "They're the first to support enterprise-class voice over a 3G network. This takes Agito out of the fixed-mobile convergence [FMC] niche and now they're solving a business problem for all mobile phone users. They're saving money in a way that's much more broadly applicable" to corporate users.

Agito's original client and server software lets enterprises corral Wi-Fi-enabled cell phones and link them with corporate PBXs. Much of the focus for Agito, and for rivals like DiVitas and Varaha has been on convincing enterprises of the value of shifting voice calls seamlessly between cellular and enterprise Wi-Fi networks, as part of the long- and heavily-hyped move toward "unified communications." In effect, the cell phone becomes an extension on the corporate telephone network, gains PBX-based features such as call-forwarding and extension dialing, and offloads some voice calls from the cellular voice plan to an IP-based enterprise network. DiVitas extended PBX features to iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry handsets last fall. 

The problem: the enterprise embrace of unified communication is glacially slow, and companies are finding the promised benefits and savings illusory. Faced with that, and with weak U.S. growth for the Nokia/Symbian and Microsoft Windows Mobile devices that it first concentrated on, Agito refocused in mid-2009. The new goal: "building stuff for the phone people wanted to buy," Roshan says.

As of October, there were nearly 15 million BlackBerry users in the United States, with iPhone and iPod touch users coming in a distant second with almost 9 million, for the first time surpassing the number of Windows Mobile users. Last fall, Agito released its client code for BlackBerry devices, enabling them to use Wi-Fi for VoIP calls.

But with the newest Agito software release, a Wi-Fi phone was not necessary. With the Agito client, any supported 3G cell phone can use a cellular data connection to place a VoIP call. Agito is one of the first enterprise vendors to support this change in carriers' terms of service. The new code has been optimized for cell networks, improving voice quality by using several techniques to minimize jitter and suppress radio noise.

When a call is placed on a BlackBerry or iPhone, the Agito client forges a data connection over the 3G network to the Agito server behind the corporate firewall. The server hands off the call control to the enterprise PBX which routes the call out over the PSTN.

That means that voice calls, including international calls, can be shifted to a cellular data plan that offers unlimited data for a set fee or via a metered plan instead of a traditional voice minutes plan with roaming fees. "International call costs are now bounded: you can know what it will cost," Roshan says. And it can be done without having to remember to swap SIM cards in an effort to lower call costs while traveling overseas.

The new Agito appliance model is the RoamAnywhere Mobility Router 6000 Series, which can support up to 10,000 users. The other two models are the 4000, for 100 to 1,000 users and the 2000, for 25 to 100 users. Agito is in talks with a number of carriers and service providers to use the 6000 and the 4.0 software release as the basis of hosted VoIP cellular services for the small-to-midsize business market.

All the new products will be available in March or April.

Pricing has been reduced for high volume purchases. On a per-user basis, list prices start at $200 and drop to $64 for 5,000-user deployments. For the first time, Agito is also now offering a subscription-based service: starting at $11 per user per month and drop to as low as $2 based on number of users.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for "Network World." Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

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