Skype signs first mobile network partner

E-Plus will offer voice over IP through Skype to mobile data subscribers

While some mobile operators plan to restrict users from making voice over IP (VOIP) calls over their wireless data networks, Germany's E-Plus Mobilfunk GmbH & Co. KG is encouraging VOIP through a deal it announced Thursday with Skype Technologies SA. Starting in October, subscribers to E-Plus' Euro 39.95 (US$49.30) flat rate data plan will receive Skype software as part of the service bundle.

Users will only be able to make VOIP calls via their computers, not handsets. An E-Plus spokesman said the operator has no plans to begin offering a Skype VOIP service that can be used on a mobile phone.

The offering will be largely aimed at business customers who are the main users of VOIP now, said the spokesman. Customers will be able to use their laptops for most of their communication needs, including accessing the Internet, downloading documents and now making voice calls, he said.

While the E-Plus spokesman said he expects the service to offer the same quality as VOIP over a wired connection, others aren't quite so sure. Typically, the fastest mobile data networks deliver 64K bps (bits per second) on the uplink, a speed that can degrade the quality of a VOIP call. "I'd have thought the [quality of service] on the uplink would be dodgy," said John Delaney, a principal analyst with Ovum Ltd. Many operators are planning network upgrades that will increase the uplink speed.

Because many business users pay for mobile data on a flat monthly rate basis, this offering can help them cut down on mobile phone voice calling costs. In addition, business people who use VOIP may already do so via Wi-Fi networks. E-Plus customers can decide to use the E-Plus network instead of Wi-Fi hotspots, thus potentially eliminating a subscription to a Wi-Fi service.

E-Plus will only allow customers to use Skype for VOIP, blocking other VOIP offerings. Vodafone Germany has said that starting in 2007, it may restrict users from accessing any VOIP networks. Operators fear that customers may use the VOIP services while subscribing to flat rate data plans rather than use the regular mobile voice network, thus threatening their voice revenues.

Subscribers to mobile data services from any operator can use Skype's service. E-Plus is the first mobile operator to partner with Skype and include Skype's software in a service offering.

In July, Skype partnered with Boingo Wireless Inc., a hotspot aggregator. For $7.95 per month, customers can make and receive Skype calls in Boingo hotspots.

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