In a move that could slowly suck the life out of the cellular carriers' voice cash cow, Skype last week said its popular VoIP software will be available bundled with several standalone WiFi handsets in the third quarter. The setup eliminates the need for connections to a computer to make free Internet phone calls.

Four handset partners will be assembling the devices, which will be available directly from the Skype online store. The hardware partners are Belkin, Edge-Core, NetGear, and SMC.

Skype said the devices will be usable with any personal, business or free public WiFi access point that does not require browser authentication.

The key point here is that you can make free calls Internet-to-Internet (or very inexpensive ones to those that terminate on the PSTN) without having to be tied to a computer.

If the devices are popular, the cellular carriers (and landline telephony providers, too) will be facing further erosion of their significant revenues derived from voice minutes.

Granted, WiFi coverage isn't nearly as pervasive as cellular coverage. And so far, the devices sound like they will be fairly expensive. Still, depending on your users' business habits, the capital investment could quickly be recouped in discarded fee-based cellular minutes.

The announcement adds yet another dimension to the evolving and converging world of telephone calling in which, for example:

  • Carriers are considering dual-mode WiFi/cellular handsets and associated services. When you roam onto your company's own wireless LAN, you switch over to a less expensive per-minute rate.
  • RIM, whose forte historically has been messaging handsets with cellular connections, introduced the WiFi-enabled BlackBerry 7270 last year.

    The 7270 ties to your corporate WLAN and your IP PBX (via the SIP protocol), throwing some competition at the likes of WiFi handset makers SpectraLink and Cisco.

    To date, however, none of these vendors' devices work with any old "open" WiFi network; they must be used locally on your business campus in conjunction with your organisation's own access points.

  • Mobility server companies, such as Ascendent (purchased earlier this year by RIM), extend PBX capabilities to cellular phones and allow cellular users to leverage their business's dial plans, PBX features, and calling rates when connected to cellular networks.

Amid this evolving telephony landscape, will you consider using a Skype WiFi handset? Why or why not? How might such a device fit into your company's wired/wireless/voice/data convergence plans? Enquiring minds want to know.