Voice over IP can save money on phone calls, but most of us already get very cheap landline calls. Wi-Fi networks open the possibility of mobile VoIP, and reducing our use of more expensive mobile networks. Mobile VoIP has so far been limited by the devices that support it (both Wi-Fi phones and converged phones), the quality of the connection and the usability of the software.
We tested Cicero's Cicerophone - a Windows Mobile softphone that improves these issues.
- It gives better quality than the mobile version of Skype - which is not saying much, admittedly.
- It also improves usability by a well-designed emulation of a normal cellphone interface, which integrates with the cellular dialler to call out on VoIP or the cellphone network.
- By integrating the cellular and VoIP networks in the handset, it also allows IT managers or operators a lot of flexibility in the way the softphone is set up and used.
CiceroPhone runs (at present) on Windows Mobile Pocket PC devices. It sits in front of the dialler, integrates with the contact book, and makes calls either by VoIP or GSM. Cicero expects it to be re-sold by fixed line operators and VoIP providers, but we reviewed a vanilla version.
We tried CiceroPhone on an HP iPaq 6340. The softphone was pre-configured to use a VoIP service set up with a third party for demonstration purposes, that routes calls to and from the PSTN network. We used our own Wi-Fi network with DSL backhaul, and added our own SIM card for GSM dialling.
A well-designed softphone
The softphone looks and feels like a fully-featured mobile phone, implemented in software. It includes text messaging, integration with the iPaq's contact list, and a history of calls made. The product will support voicemail (though the trial VoIP service did not include this), and the softphone also included clear buttons for speakerphone and mute.
The softphone indicates the presence of Wi-Fi indicated by a green button, with up to four "signal strength" bars.
In these features, it scores heavily over the Skype softphone, which suffers from a user interface that seems to be an afterthought.
CiceroPhone dials out over Wi-Fi when a signal was available, and over GSM otherwise. We dialled both mobile and fixed numbers through the VoIP service.
Phone quality is "good enough"
The quality on this demo system seemed adequate but not great. To put that in context, "adequate" is a lot better than the quality we achieved using the mobile version of Skype on the same handset, and the same Wi-Fi access point. Our tests were subjective, but Skype calls were unacceptable half the time on this equipment, while CiceroPhone calls were okay.
We made a direct VoIP-to-VoIP call to another subscriber on the same service. In a multi-user set-up, this would be the equivalent of calling another extension on fhe company phone system. Quality here, again, was adequate.
We received calls over the Wi-Fi connection (the trial service provided us with an Irish phone number for incoming calls).
We connected using an unsecured Wi-Fi network at first, to screen out any problems caused by the overhead of Wi-Fi security. When we turned WEP on, we experienced no problems with the software, including no noticeable loss of quality.
Managing the networks
Unlike converged services like BT Fusion, this service is modular, with a lot of control left to the user, or to the IT manager or telephone service provider which integrates the service.
It is unconcerned what SIM is used, or what cellphone network. Preferences in the set-up screens allow the user (or a network manager) to set up routing so that certain GSM calls - perhaps to the same mobile network - can be routed over GSM rather than VoIP.
The settings for the VoIP service were easy to find and edit (and presumably will be hidden in versions sold by a VoIP provider).
Audio features like the codec can be changed, and aspects like silence suppression can be tweaked, to improve quality on a given set-up. Quality of service settings can be turned on.
The product supports STUN (simple traversal of UDP through NATs), a protocol that helps get traffic past a firewall that carries out network address translation (NAT). Again, the settings are easy to access.
Current hardware lets it down
At the moment, the software is occasionally let down by the hardware available to run it. For example, resetting the Wi-Fi connections on the iPaq is clunky, with the device sometimes unwilling to change Wi-Fi settings unless the other networks are switched off.
Also, we were not able to try Wi-Fi calls using a Bluetooth headset. Cicero advises that current hardware is unable to juggle Bluetooth and Wi-Fi well enough to relay a voice call from one to the other. This is understandable as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi use the same 2.4GHz spectrum.
Cicero is trying different handset-headset combinations, and hopes to find a Bluetooth combination that works with its software as future, better-integrated generations of hardware arrive.
Without Bluetooth, we quickly moved to the wired headset, as holding the 6340 to the head rapidly reveals another weakness of current hardware. The 6340 becomes uncomfortably warm during Wi-Fi calls.
This is a symptom of a more fundamental problem with the current generation of hardware - the batteries ran down very quickly, making the 6340 suitable for short calls, unless it is plugged into its recharging cradle and used like a deskphone.
Better converged phones are expected over the next six months, during which time this softphone could emerge as a useful tool for IT managers wanting to implement voice over Wi-Fi without needing separate Wi-Fi phones.
So far, converged hardware is in its infancy. However, this softphone could already make a useful contribution and is well placed to take advantage of better dual-mode handsets as they arrive. You may encounter branded versions of Cicero from VoIP providers, or use it to "roll your own" converged service.