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The VoIP wars: air supply is an optional feature

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Truphone boss James Tagg says his fledgling company will ask Ofcom to intervene if mobile networks continue to cripple VoIP-capable handsets.

Another VoIP provider told us today that Orange has been crippling its E61 handsets for SIP telephony "for several weeks".

As we reported earlier today, Vodafone and Orange have released a version of the hot new Nokia N95 handset with the native VoIP capability disabled. See Truphone's video here.

Tagg said he'd be making a representation to the UK telecoms regulator in a week if questions hadn't been answered satisfactorily by Vodafone and Orange. "We will formally complain within a week if we haven't got some sort of answer out of them by other routes," he told us.

The two giants are clearly flouting EU law, he said. "We're being blocked at the network level and at the device level."

Adam Beaumont, managing director of rival SIP service AQL said his company wouldn't be making its own representation to Ofcom, but gave his full backing to Truphone's complaint.

Beaumont also revealed that Orange has been crippling its Nokia E61 handsets.

"The N95 doesn't surprise me," he told us. AQL had noticed that Orange-branded E61 phones were unable to make SIP calls for several weeks.

New start-ups such as Truphone and AQL allow users to use a WLAN-aware handset with built-in SIP support - such as the E61 and the new E65 - bypassing the network. Nokia has integrated SIP calling deeply into the phone, which makes for a seamless experience for the user and better power management. The launch of Nokia's E65 and N95 handsets, combined with the growing maturity of services such as AQL and Truphone, is taking VoIP from the enthusiast market into the mainstream.

"We've got other fish to fry, but we'll be backing the Truphone complaint," Beaumont said today. "There's going to be a lot of disappointed subscribers out there."

Both Tagg and Beaumont said Nokia would be far from pleased to see the operators disabling premium features from their phones.

"Nokia's built a great handset with the E65, and are completely behind SIP and VoIP. You're not going to buy a £700 handset unless it does something cool," said Tagg.

Beaumont said: "It opens up a another can of words, really. Nokia won't be very happy supplying a phone to the networks that then had its functionality limited. They create a beautiful handset, and there's a promise to the consumer, then they get one and find it doesn't do any of those things promised."

Why Truphone and AQL aren't like Skype

"You can use a completely separate client like Fring, but it's impossible to make SIP calls using the Nokia stuff," Tagg explained today.

"We've always taken the view that the SIP client must be deeply integrated into the phone, and that these separate clients are novelties. Fring is impressive, but it's hard to write a client that's nice to your battery, and people want to use the contact book and call log that are already in the phone."

Users can still buy an N95 with a SIM from a supplier such as Expansys, but they'll pay more upfront and not enjoy the airtime subsidy.

"They're just defending their voice revenues," said Beaumont. "They say they're not worried about VoIP but this shows they are. Why remove it, otherwise?"

Ofcom had not responded to our request for comment by press time. ®

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