Adventures in Mobile Unified Communications – Part 1: Background

I traveled the Baltic Sea during the second half of August, in part testing a simple but very powerful (and remarkably cost-effective) approach to mobile unified communications.

For those of us who travel internationally extensively, and who more than depend on a wide variety of communications and networking capabilities, perhaps the best-known (and certainly most convenient) solution is international roaming on cellular networks. With the rise of LTE (with backwards compatibility to the GSM family of technologies, of course) as the universal access here, such is easy - turn on your phone, and talk, text and surf away. The only problem is that roaming voice and data charges, while often lower than in years past, remain absolutely outrageous, and spending even hundreds of dollars per day on wireless is often par for the course.

And, from my cheap/frugal perspective, anyway, totally unacceptable. Of course, assuming an unlocked phone, one can buy a local SIM and cut back on many of these charges, but international long distance can still nail you. Cellular, though, is in fact completely unnecessary, assuming you (like me) don't need to be reached at a moment's notice, can delay calls and Internet access to a specific or otherwise convenient time, and, most importantly, if Wi-Fi access is available. Free (or at least by comparison, reasonable) Wi-Fi is often available in many international locations, which of course makes the e-mail and Web-access parts of the challenge evaporate pretty rapidly.

But what about voice? Skype and similar services are often a possibility, but these are sometimes blocked by the local authorities. One might also purchase or rent a satellite phone (Iridium or Globalstar), with by far the greatest degree of convenience, but with per-minute charges that rival (or even exceed) cellular roaming. As is turns out, free Wi-Fi can be used to our advantage with voice as well.

This is the domain, of course, of voice over IP over Wi-Fi (VoFi), but, more importantly, of mobile unified communications (the acronym here is, yes, unfortunately MUC), an emerging and perhaps even simple technology for mobile voice. MUC is an outgrowth of fixed/mobile convergence (FMC), which was an astonishingly hot topic a few years ago based on interest in two-way handoff of voice calls from cellular to/from Wi-Fi. I really don't understand why FMC never caught on, and why we continue to think that bringing cellular signals indoors is a good idea. We just don't have the capacity in terms of available cellular spectrum to produce a satisfying user experience in most cases, especially in high-density applications. Wi-Fi works - consider, once again, its use in football stadiums and similar venues. And SIP-based VoFi works just fine as well - or, at least, it certainly has the potential. But that's really what this project was all about.

I hit nine cities in seven countries in the Baltic region of Europe during the second half of August this year. The rules of the game: during the two weeks spent on the road, I could use only Wi-Fi - and free Wi-Fi at that - for all communications. Free is defined here as either a completely open SSID, or one that involves simple registration and no other exchange of value. And no hacking whatsoever, by the way - many European nations take unauthorized access to Wi-Fi very seriously, and while getting caught would undoubtedly be unlikely, writing this blog from a Scandinavian, German, or Russian prison cell is undoubtedly much less romantic than it sounds. I don't text much, but it sure would be nice to have such messaging independent of any given cellular carrier. I use Web-based e-mail (that is, when Yahoo Mail actually works; outages and assorted other problems remain common), so all that I really needed was Web access and voice. Web is easy, of course, and voice, as it turned out, was also easy in many - but not all - cases as well.

By the way, the best way to accomplish such a geographically-diverse agenda was via a cruise ship. For the first 20 years of Farpoint Group's history, I didn't take vacations, this mostly because I'm a workaholic who really loves his job. So we just passed 22, and after my first vacation in two decades last year, a few weeks kind of off each year are now in order. Of course, I never really stop working, and that's what I was doing on the boat - going from location to location to test MUC. And seeing the sights, of course - more on that later.

This series will continue throughout September, with other items of note interspersed. But I think you'll find this story interesting and instructive - and holding great promise regardless.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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