WiFi-Only Calling: Is It Time?

19th Mar 2015

Like me, you may well be metaphorically stumbling through the heavy fog that is a 24-month mobile contract…and all for a slightly bigger rectangle than the one that preceded it. I’ve done it many times before and thought little of the commitment but within a mutating market there just might be a refreshing alternative that could save us all more than just a few quid!

If you’re reading this having recently slid into bed with one of the big cell-phone operators, please accept my apologies and heart-felt condolences – see you on the other side. However, if you are fortunate enough to be nearing the triumphant finale of a two-year stretch think twice before any hasty renewals and read on!

So what’s the deal?

Hopping on and off of public WiFi is - as we’ve covered previously - not without its dangers, however the spectacular growth of public WiFi hotspots does hand mobile users the potential to shun their current (and probably extortionate) mobile tariffs in favour of WiFi-only or hybrid connections and price plans.

WiFi Only

WiFi-only mobile connectivity has been possible for a while now but has been reserved for only the bravest, laugh-in-the-face-of-danger, Chuck Norris types among us - after all, finding yourself left high-and-dry without a cellular signal and no WiFi is the stuff of nightmares. Just think of all the witty Facebook statuses and Valencia-filtered Instagram photos that will be orphaned. You may even be forced to talk to someone...heavens!

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, one courageous fellow took on a 30-day WiFi-only challenge, relying on public networks for everything from voice calls to instant messaging and downloading Angry Birds (do people still play that?). The plucky chap has not been seen since day 13…he belongs to Starbucks now (I'm joking, of course...Costa).

If you'd like to emulate his heroics and go WiFi-only (you little devil, you), just switch your phone to aeroplane mode and then turn WiFi back on. You’ll not be able to make voice calls in the traditional way, but a quick dip into your settings and you’ll be able to forward them to Skype or other such applications. Once you’ve completed these steps put on your daps and start running towards the nearest WiFi network, it’s like oxygen to you now!

As I said, this is an extreme option but can save you piles, nay, mountains of cash. American cable operator, Cablevision, is set to launch a new service which offers customers a WiFi-only contract for less than 10 Dollars a month, with the handset costing just shy of 100 Dollars – significantly less than my current annual total even with the cost of the hardware.

Hybrid cellphone contracts

The concept is pretty straight forward; your mobile intelligently switches from costly cellular connectivity to WiFi connectivity wherever possible, saving you money and making good use of the copious wireless connectivity now on offer; cool, right? Well, maybe…

Republic wireless have estimated that in the United States mobile users are in range of a WiFi network around 60% percent of the time, which is probably true of those who work in urban areas, or spend most of their time on a campus of some sort, but what about those who are constantly on the move or live in a field?

Mobility is, and always will be, the defining characteristic of the mobile phone…without it, it’s just a phone - remember those things that had their own table and chair at the bottom of the stairs? Your nan probably still has one! If your hybrid contract begins to become expensive whilst on the move and out of Wi-Fi range - which is likely due to some fairly strict data caps currently in place - then it may well be something of a non-starter.

Quality of Service

Humour me...

For just a moment let us imagine that we, you and I, are the perfect candidates for a WiFi-only / hybrid smartphone arrangement; we work in a big city with endless public WiFi hotspot options and we definitely have no intention of making regular visits to the Lake District. We have the capital to cover the upfront handset costs and rely primarily on instant messaging and email for human contact.

How well can coffee shop WiFi support our connectivity demands?

Public WiFi and hotspot networks can be average at the best of times and it goes without saying that they have not all been designed with robust QoS (Quality of Service) in mind.

With this is mind consider how making voice calls could be problematic. In a WiFi-only/hybrid world we could all switch to services such as Google Voice, Skype or even cellular services such as Vodafone’s yet-to-be-released VoLTE, and IP service which adds voice capabilities to 4G connections.

However, during such calls the WiFi network has about a 10 millisecond latency window to make the connection or else you’ll end up with either an annoying echo, an awkward delay, or just chatting to yourself…not ideal, even for the most narcissistic among us. So, in order for clear and continuous dialogue to be realistic, a strong connection is a definite necessity and in the current landscape may not always be achievable.

You’re not helping, Gregg!

I realise this blog-entry has been akin to a ‘game of two halves’. I started with burgeoning positivity; I was swept-up by the possibilities; the thought of giving my cell provider the big heave-ho amidst a barrage of profanities and hand gesticulations was all too much.

I apologise.

The reality may not have been as glossy as I’d initially advocated, there is certainly some deliberation and examination to be done before any gallant leaps into the Wi-Fi abyss (or promised land, as the case may be).

But, that is not to say we should dismiss it as an alternative altogether!

Public Wi-Fi networks will undoubtedly continue to improve in both service and availability - it’s only a matter of time – and with the aforementioned plans for improved VoLTE networks, Wi-Fi calling could be very much the ‘norm’ in years to come.

For now though, it may be a case of 'better the devil you know'…

What Next?

If you are planning to deploy an enterprise-grade wireless network or are experiencing problems with a existing setup, please feel free to contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.