WiFi phones are similar to cell phones except they connect to wireless computer networks instead of cell networks. Simple as that. However to be useful as phones they must connect to a VoIP service through the wireless network connection.
A connection to a VoIP service such as Vonage, Skype, SIPgate etc is done with software installed on the phone. The end user may be unaware of the software or it may need to be installed by the user depending on the phones and service to be used.
WiFi phones have a few unique advantages over normal mobile phones.
- Cheap Service. VoIP services generally have very low airtime costs generally and especially internationally. Imagine calling your overseas friends from a cafe for .02 US$/min.
- WiFi Coverage. If you are near a WiFi hotspot / network you have phone service. In urban areas they are all over. If you have a laptop computer you can potentially bring your phone network with you.
- WiFi Coverage. Even urban areas have plenty of places where there is no WiFi. Without WiFi your fancy WiFi phone is useless.
- Emerging Technology. There are not many WiFi phones available yet. Some smartphone / PDAs can be made to work but there is often an element of DIY.
Existing WiFi Phones
- UTStarcom F1000 This is basically the Vonage WiFi phone. Since Vonage pushes this phone for its users, the F1000 is probably the most popular phone in this category. Since it doesn’t have a web browser it cannot access wireless networks that require you to visit a web page before use. It reportedly has a terrible interface. But it is a WiFi phone that you can get right now, today. About $80 through Vonage. $120 elsewhere.
- Smartphones and PDAs Some PDAs and some of the newer mobile phones have WiFi capabilities. Devices like the Treo 650 fit this description as well as the soon to be released Nokia phones (N91 and maybe others). Excepting the newest (and as of yet not available) devices, support is something far less than official with these devices so you will have to check Google or your local geek to see what works and doesn’t work. Some of the HP iPaq’s work (2210, 4700 and some others), Eten m600 / Torq P120, Dell Axim x30 / x50 with Skype and possibly other SIP client software.
- ZyXEL’s P2000W The original consumer WiFi phone. Quite dated at this point.
- Cisco IP Phones Cisco has a series of IP phones. Some seem to have wireless connectivity but I don’t know much about these.
Netgear has a Skype specific phone coming soon(?) that sounds very interesting.
In the near’ish future there should be a lot of new hybrid mobile phones that use cell networks as well as WiFi. Nokia will have their N91 out soon. It remains to be seen what will happen with this sort of technology since current cell companies are doing EVERYTHING possible to stop it. They want to lock you in and give you NO chance of getting away from their horrible contracts. I am sure VoIP WiFi phones scare them.