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Vonage Releases Apps for International Calling

The Internet telephony service Vonage has released mobile applications for the iPhone and iPod touch, which is less like a modern voice-over-IP (VoIP) program than an automated method of using a calling card to avoid a carrier’s international charges. Vonage uses Wi-Fi for handling calls for the iPod touch and iPhone, and can also place calls over an iPhone’s cellular connection.

Vonage’s normal hardware-based Internet telephony service routes all calls over a broadband connection, lets you assign one or more phone numbers for incoming calls, and allows calls to any phone number in the world. Vonage also makes a “soft phone” – a computer VoIP client – with similar features.

The free Vonage mobile apps are far more limited. No inbound calls. No connection to an existing Vonage account. And no domestic calling over Vonage’s network, even on the iPod touch, which has no cellular option. The app is currently available only to U.S. iPhone customers; it’s unclear whether the company will expand availability to Canada and the UK, where it also operates its Internet telephony business.

This is in stark contrast to Skype for iPhone and iPod touch, which currently works only over Wi-Fi. The Skype app allows incoming calls and can place calls to any public switched telephone network (PSTN) number in the world – domestic or international – or to other Skype users. (See “Skype Coming to iPhone,” 2009-03-30.)

The difference appears to be because Skype relies only on Wi-Fi, while Vonage can work in a strange but seamless way over a cellular voice connection, too.

Limitations in both Skype and Vonage Mobile may disappear shortly, however, with the formal word from AT&T on 05-Oct-09 that the firm has dropped its policy of not allowing VoIP calls over its 3G data network via the iPhone. (See “VoIP over Mobile Broadband a Smart Move for AT&T,” 2009-10-09.) However, any changes resulting from the new policy are in the future. Here’s how the Vonage apps work today.

For domestic calls, the iPod touch doesn’t work at all. This is odd, as one might expect that Apple wouldn’t restrain its own non-carrier-attached product, but it has. (An iPod touch also needs a microphone, by the way – either Apple’s iPhone Stereo Headset or another product.)

Domestic calls on the iPhone are simply shunted to the iPhone’s built-in call system by the Vonage app. Vonage doesn’t actually touch these calls, but Apple has allowed Vonage to use its front-end to provide the call interface. This would seem to violate Apple’s principle that apps can’t duplicate native functionality.

For international calls, Vonage Mobile uses Wi-Fi where available; it’s the sole option for the iPod touch, of course, and frequently available on an iPhone.

However, if an iPhone has only a cellular connection available, the Vonage Mobile app places a normal call – invisible to the user – to a local Vonage access number, and then completes the international call through that connection. That means that iPhone subscribers incur per-minute charges as with any normal phone call. In some cases, a subscriber might also face roaming charges.

International calls are supported to more than 60 countries, and, however they are placed, are subject to Vonage’s per-minute calling rates, which are far cheaper than most standard carrier rates. You must preload money into your Vonage Mobile account to place calls; Vonage puts $1 of credit into U.S. accounts to let you try the service. You can also set your account to add funds from a credit card whenever you drop below a preset value.

This per-minute charge is quite different from Vonage’s landline-replacement service, where the company’s standard monthly fee includes free non-metered calls to the United States, Canada, and landlines (but not mobile numbers) to those same 60 countries. Vonage says a flat-rate subscription with the same countries will be available before year’s end.

But it’s annoying that there’s absolutely no integration with existing Vonage accounts; the company has several million subscribers who might appreciate a single bill and unified call history, at minimum, not to mention discounted calling. Skype considers its users to have a single account, and all its applications on smartphones, computers, and even a few standalone handsets tie into that same account’s call services.

The limitation on placing domestic calls and receiving any calls might be Vonage’s way to avoid Google Voice’s fate, a program that Apple says is on indefinite review for approval, and that Google says Apple rejected from the App Store. The FCC is investigating the situation (see “FCC Queries Apple, AT&T, and Google about Google Voice App,” 2009-08-03).

Google Voice allows free domestic calls and voicemail, and ties together telephony, text messaging, voicemail, and call forwarding. On the Android platform, installing Google Voice replaces the built-in calling system, using whatever data network is available to route calls.

AT&T’s recent decision to allow VoIP over its 3G data network might mean the release of Google Voice, along with notable revisions to both Skype and Vonage Mobile. We’ll see if those choices appear, but the near future could bring a lot of competition for helping your fingers do the walking.

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