Three years ago I replaced my cell phone with my laptop, using Asterisk and VoicePulse Connect, and I was very pleased. However, I wasn’t very good at leaving my softphone running, so my family and friends weren’t so pleased, and six months later I was given another cell phone and was practically begged to use it. There is only one event in my life that I’m bitter about, and this is it.

Lesson learned—just like everyone else, I need my phone to be unobtrusive and easy to use. Just because I understand the underlying technology to a greater degree than most people doesn’t make me any better equipped to deal with crappy implementations in day-to-day life.

Cell phone manufacturers are beginning to build phones, such as the Nokia 6086, that connect not just to the cell phone network (usually either via GSM or CDMA), but also to the Wi-Fi networks that have become commonplace in homes and businesses all over the world. With the introduction of the GAN (also known as UMA) standard, these so-called dual-mode phones can roam between cell towers and nearby wireless Internet connections, without even dropping in-progress calls. That’s a remarkable technical achievement, and even more remarkably, major cell carriers like T-Mobile are embracing the technology. Dual-mode phones are cool, and improve coverage for areas (like my home) where cell phone signals are almost non-existent and dropped calls are common.

When compared with the promises of VoIP technology, however, even the cool dual-mode phones fall short. VoIP can provide advantages such as these that are not found with existing carriers’ dual-mode systems:

  • cost savings: Routing calls over the Internet costs much less to end users than routing through traditional phone carriers.
  • innovation/control: Sure, VoIP supports voice mail, caller ID, three-way and conference calling, and other features found in many traditional phone systems. In fact, the open source Asterisk PBX software provides features that are generally found only in high-end, expensive commercial PBX systems, including those widely hated touch-tone menus. But most importantly, people can build innovative new phone services that have never been seen before, and customize our personal and business phone systems to a degree never before possible.
  • integration: I can use the same address for e-mail, IM with Jabber, and phone calls with SIP. When I tell my Jabber client that I’m “busy building rockets”, my phone can read that message to people calling me before they leave a voice mail. That voice message can be e-mailed to me as an audio attachment and/or a machine-generated transcript.

For all these reasons, I want a cell phone service provider that doesn’t connect my cell phone to the regular phone system, but routes all my calls through my own VoIP Asterisk PBX instead. These days, it looks to me like a MVNO could pull off this trick. Companies like Blueslice Networks offer bridges between VoIP protocols like SIP and telco protocols like SS7 to enable MVNOs to offer “Fixed/Mobile Convergence” services like this. I’m not the only one interested; other commentators are writing about the possibilities open to MVNOs (“Wireless VoIP: Convergence and the Power of the MVNO”, Sanjay Jhawar, BridgePort Networks).

With all this attention, why can’t I find a MVNO that will just hand off my calls to me? Seems like somebody just needs a bunch of start-up capital and the ability to plug some existing commercially-available hardware together. Has anyone seen a company doing this already?