Europe's mobile advances

Cell phone users in Europe can look forward to VoIP and televisions, coming to their handsets soon

Smartphone VoIP
If, until now, most smartphone users have associated mobile Internet with writing e-mail, surfing the Web, or sending pictures, they could easily get hooked on cheap VoIP calls.

Several European groups are currently testing new mobile VoIP services that could radically change how cell phone customers make calls in the future. Skype Technologies and mobile phone operator Hutchison 3 Group are in the starting blocks to launch a commercial mobile VoIP service. Hutchison will provide Skype's mobile VoIP client in a range of high-end smartphones that have Session Initiation Protocol capability and run the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system.

Jajah, founded by an Austrian named Daniel Mattes, has launched a mobile VoIP service that lets smartphone users make low-cost and, in some cases, free international calls. To make calls, users simply enter Jajah's mobile Web portal through their handset's browser and enter their usernames and passwords.

Fring, the brainchild of Israeli entrepreneur Avi Shechter, is another peer-to-peer VoIP service that carries calls over cell phone networks in much the same way PC-based Internet telephony services transport conversations over Wi-Fi or fixed-line broadband connections. But unlike Jajah, Fring requires users to download a VoIP application to their handsets. And currently only Nokia's Series 60 3rd Edition phones support the service.

Fring looks and feels a lot like other PC-based applications, such as Skype, Google Talk, and MSN Messenger, which offer integrated VoIP, instant messaging, and real-time presence services; Fring even connects with those services. Users can fill their contacts list with other Fring users or friends who use the other services, see when they're online and communicate directly with them.

While all of these services show that mobile VoIP technology works, quality is still an issue. Low uplink speeds over the airwave link can result in latency, among other problems. But higher speeds are on the way. Operators of GSM networks are upgrading their mobile broadband networks with high-speed uplink packet access technology to achieve the bidirectional capability they need to run real VoIP.

Mobile television
Just when you thought your mobile phone had all the features you could handle -- telephony, messaging, gaming, music, and photography -- another's on the way: TV.

Mobile phone manufacturers and network operators in Europe are tuning in to mobile TV big time. Two types of mobile TV service are competing for prime time. One streams video data over mobile phone networks; the other broadcasts video signals directly to mobile phones equipped with special antennas.

The broadcast service is attracting the most attention, largely because it offers one-to-many capability, whereas the streamed service offers one-to-one capability.

Broadcast mobile TV in Europe debuted at last year's World Cup soccer tournament in Germany, where people were able to test the service in and around the stadiums.

The service is already commercially available in South Korea, where millions of commuters chat, play games, listen to music, and now watch TV on their mobile phones.

But the commercial rollout of broadcast mobile TV services in Europe has been held up by a battle for supremacy among three standards: Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB), which is being pushed by South Korean manufacturers; MediaFlow, which was developed by Qualcomm; and the DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld) standard, which was approved by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and is backed by some of the world's largest handset makers, including Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Siemens, and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications.

Viviane Reding, commissioner of the European Union's Information Society and Media directorate general, has given the industry until this summer to agree on a standard, and she has made it clear that she prefers DVB-H. That deadline would give handset manufacturers and operators sufficient time to launch products and services ahead of the European Soccer Championship and the Olympic Games in China next year.

Italy has offered commercial broadcast mobile TV services based on DVB-H for more than a year. Analysts say the service is compelling because it provides many more channels than DMB and offers high-quality resolution and audio.