Vonage offers iPhone, BlackBerry app for making Internet calls

Plans could be challenge to wireless carriers

Vonage Holdings Corp. today announced a free iPhone and BlackBerry Internet phone application designed to let users make international calls over Wi-Fi or cellular networks.

Customers who use the new Vonage application could save more than 50% on calls to dozens of foreign countries, compared to what they would pay to make the same calls using the services of mainstream wireless carriers, Vonage officials said.

The application, called Vonage Mobile, is now available free of charge on the company's Web site and at Apple Inc.'s App Store. In addition to iPhone and BlackBerry devices, it will work on Apple's iPod Touch devices, which connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, Vonage said.

The iPhone will support Vonage calls on both cellular and Wi-Fi networks, while BlackBerry devices will make Vonage calls via cellular networks.

To make international calls via Vonage, users will launch the application, then Vonage will route the international portion of the call over its network. For iPhone users, the application will first attempt to make a connection via Wi-Fi, but if Wi-Fi is unavailable, the call will be made on a cellular network. Such calls are seen as local wireless calls and will only use the minutes on a caller's phone plan, said Mike Tempora, Vonage's senior vice president of product management.

For the Vonage portion of the call, international rates will be extremely competitive with those of rival Skype, a Vonage spokesman said. Skype supports Internet calls from iPhones, but only via Wi-Fi, a service it started earlier this year.

Vonage lists rates for mobile Internet calls to 258 countries in a rate sheet that comes with the application download. A call to Colombia from the U.S. via Vonage Mobile would be 9.9 cents per minute, Vonage said, well below the rates of more than $2 per minute charged by various wireless service providers. A call to the U.K. would cost 25 cents a minute over Vonage Mobile.

There is no monthly service fee for Vonage Mobile, although the company later this year intends to launch a mobile plan called Vonage World, which will allow unlimited calls to more than 60 countries at a set monthly fee. The amount of that fee was not announced.

The Vonage Mobile application was approved by Apple, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. and AT&T Inc., which is the sole wireless service provider for Apple's iPhone, Vonage officials said.

The future of wireless voice-over-IP calling has been questioned by traditional telecommunications carriers and is under review by the Federal Communications Commission. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently called for expanding broadband policies so that they apply to providers of mobile broadband services -- a move that is opposed by the CTIA, a trade group representing the major wireless carriers, but backed by Vonage and other providers wireless VoIP services.

Tempora said Vonage is a longstanding Net neutrality supporter and was encouraged by Genachowski's recent endorsement and is optimistic about the future for Internet calling via wireless. "We look forward to providing high-quality voice and messaging over any device, from any location, over any broadband network," Tempora said.

In-Stat analyst Frank Dickson, in an interview, said the potential market for Internet wireless calling is "huge." His company recently wrote a note about ways that mobile VoIP poses a direct threat to the revenues of wireless carriers, even for in-country calling. In-Stat said users of mobile VoIP could make more than 22,000 minutes of mobile VoIP calls for $30 a month -- a rate of about one-tenth of a cent per minute.

By 2013, In-Stat said, mobile applications will generate $32 billion globally and will be used by 278 million people.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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