I prefer the Internet to switched networks, and I prefer VoIP to mobiles - at least in principle.

Doing stuff over the Internet is good, because it's on a shared resource, and prices go down. Doing stuff over a network that's owned by one provider has to be a poor alternative in the long-term, right?

OK, my mobile is a better phone. It goes where I go, it mutes when I want it to. It synchonises with my contacts folder and diary, takes pictures, and picks up FM radio. But apart from that, what's my mobile ever done for me?

Apart from all that, I still prefer fixed telephony in principle. My mobile calls still cost money, while my calls on the fixed network are pretty much free, either by using Internet telephony over broadband (I use the cheaper SIP-based Voipbuster and the non-standard, somewhat-hyped Skype) or by using a telephone provider (like 18866) that itself uses the Internet to cut costs.

The frontier in the phone
Fixed and mobile phones are about to converge, when mobile handsets get Wi-Fi in them, and the Wi-Fi can be used as a cordless extension and for Internet telephony.

But, the big question is: who will win control - the fixed providers or the mobile providers? Both want to use the converged handset for their own ends, and the frontier in the phone could end up in two places. There are two extremes:

  • The mobile industry can use the Wi-Fi connection to make indoor calls so cheap we'll forget to use our landlines. "They could go the way of the fax machine," Ken Kolderup, vice president of Kineto Wireless said to me.
  • The fixed phone providers can give us a phone that connects over the Internet from any Wi-Fi hotspot (and through the PBX if we want it). The mobile operator's territory will be whittled to a SIM card which fills in with coverage on those occasions we stray from a hotspot.

The fixed operators use the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) for connection and the IMS (IP multimedia subsystem) standard for services. The mobile operators want to use UMA (unlicensed mobile access) which lets them use any local wireless network for the last few feet of a call, but keeps the connection over their network.

We reckon a SIP/IMS phone that uses the "real" Internet is better than one which leaves you tied to the mobile operators. Analyst Dean Bubley at Disruptive Analysis agrees, and projects that the fixed line operators will win, with more SIP/IMS phones than UMA phones sold by 2007.

Are we just prejudiced?
But we are somewhat uneasy. The answer fits our prejudice too well, and flies against some the trends in the industry. Mobile phones are buoyant, and fixed lines are in decline.

"The move from fixed to mobile is continuing," says Monica Basso, a research director at Gartner Research, speaking at the Wi-Fi business development summit in Milan last week. "Some people will never have a fixed line."

Even in the enterprise, she sees mobile calls replacing fixed lines. This either happens in an uncontrolled way, with mobile bills ballooning, or else, mobile operators can offer customised contracts. "Mobile operators can offer indoor coverage and some PBX features," says Basso.

The fact is that mobile handsets are subsidised, so they can be more or less free. People are spending more time out of the office, and will always make a substantial number of mobile calls. The mobile industry believes that it can use UMA to continually cut the cost of indoor calls, so they are always at a level where users can't be bothered to switch.

This is somewhat similar to the situation with fixed telecoms, which shrugged off competition form VoIP for several years, by cutting prices so they were always low enough that it was too much hassle for most users to change over.

"I'd always bet on the mobile guys winning," says Kineto's Ken Kolderop - which is no surprise, since, as the company behind the UMA software, Kineto pretty much has bet on the mobile industry coming out tops.

He points out that SIP and IMS can be run on top of a UMA connection. This is also no surprise, as IMS is part of the mobile industry's roadmap, set out by the 3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project), and IMS uses SIP.

Nokia's demonstration this week that its handsets run UMA over Wi-Fi is getting to where UMA wants to go, but earlier attempts may not be so good.

Why Fusion?
UMA already has a showing in the market, but UMA people always look slightly embarassed about it: BT Fusion is a bizarre anomaly compared to a full-blown UMA system.

It's from a fixed-line provider, who would benefit more from a SIP/IMS approach (and is apparently moving towards this approach), it uses Bluetooth, so it can't offer service at public hotspots, and it doesn't do fast data.

It's so wierd, one wonders if BT is deliberately trying to confuse the public and make UMA look bad, or if the techies ran away with the show. At a big launch in June, BT said the products would be shipping soon. Four months later, Fusion has been supplied to "a few hundred" early triallists, and you still can't buy it. You can "register interest" at the Fusion site, and hope for a response in "three or four weeks".

Fixed versus mobile, not SIP v UMA
Mobile operators, with Wi-Fi based services, will have a more compelling story, says Kolderop. They can offer the same services on their UMA phones that fixed operators will provide through SIP/IMS. And they can bring indoor costs down.

But, I object, it doesn't take away from the fact that UMA routes the calls and services through the mobile operators' own territory, where they can charge what they please. This is irrational says Kolderup. Like everyone else, I'm happy to use a mobile phone.

When it comes down to it, I don't mind using a connection that is controlled by the operator. And with cheap indoor calls, he reckons I'll just gradually stop using my fixed line and it will fade from view, like the fax machines of old.

Or will mergers sort it out?
There's another view. Gartner's Monica Basso reckons we'll all be doing a bit of both with the same provider, because convergence will strike the operators as well as the technology - and obviously it already is.

"Who will win? If we look three years out, you won't ask that question," says Basso. "The two will be one, due to acquisition." That may be so. But the merged company will have one mindset or another, and which that will be remains to be seen.