Rogers targets SMBs with WiFi calling service

Rogers Communications Inc. has introduced its newest service targeting cash-strapped small businesses: Wi-Fi calling for smartphones.

Wi-Fi Calling for Business, introduced March 11, allows customers with smartphones to make and receive calls over Wi-Fi while in their home office, to avoid using up their monthly minutes. Calls automatically transfer to Rogers’ network when out of the Wi-Fi signal’s range.

Rogers has offered Wi-Fi calling as an add-on service for student-oriented consumer plans starting at $10 per month, but the telecom giant is now marketing the same service to companies who already subscribe to business voice plans.  

“Our phones sit on our desks as almost a relic,” says Gordon Stein, vice-president, business segment at Rogers, referring to landlines in the average office. Instead, more workers are using smartphones and are mobile as they work. Small businesses are also often operating on tight budgets, so this provides an alternative to spending extra money when you surpass your minutes for the month, Stein says. The service also allows for a more predictable monthly bill.

Rogers’ Wi-Fi calling only works for smartphones that have unlicenced mobile access (UMA) technology, which is already embedded in most of the current BlackBerry models. UMA means your phone will switch between Rogers’ wireless cell network and Wi-Fi automatically.

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Before the call is transferred either way, the service detects whether the connection is sufficient enough to avoid dropped calls. “These calls can be absolutely critical,” Stein says, and businesses can’t afford to have their connections cut off.

With business Wi-Fi calling you can make calls, send and receive text messages through Wi-Fi when you’re in a bad spot for your network’s reception, like a basement, says Mike Harvey, product manager for unified communications at Rogers.

Definition
UMA-enabled: Unlicenced Mobile Access (UMA) allows cell phones equipped with Wi-Fi to gain access to a carrier’s network through an external IP address supplied by a home router.

Rogers recommends the service for businesses that have employees travelling or working remotely often. Businesses considering getting rid of their landlines are also the target.

Unlimited local calling via Wi-Fi is available as an add-on to an existing Rogers voice plans for $10 per month and unlimited Canada-wide calling at $15 per month. Pricing is scalable for medium and enterprise businesses.

For the service to work properly, your business needs UMA phones, a strong Wi-Fi signal in your office and roughly 100 kbps of upload speed per user, according to Rogers. A major benefit of this service is keeping one phone number, rather than multiple log-ins and IDs, Stein says. The service also doesn’t require any software to be installed on the phone itself.

Critics of the Wi-Fi calling service are saying there are alternative mobile apps used for making calls that are still cheaper.

But with applications like Skype’s mobile app, it’s more a question of which lane on a highway you want to take. “It’s determined by the driver,” says Roberta Fox, president of telecommunications consultancy firm Fox Group. Users determine whether they want to make a call using Wi-Fi or on a 3G network when they make a call with an app like Skype.

Rogers’ service allows you to switch from Wi-Fi to your network without having to choose a certain application, the way you would have to with Skype or a similar VoIP service. Other competitive applications like Google Voice aren’t yet available in Canada, or are only free for calls to other users of the same application.

As president of Flat Fee Realty Inc., Tyler Ross says he spends about half of each working day-about four or five hours-on the phone and searching listings using his BlackBerry’s browser. He has been using Rogers Wi-Fi Calling service for about one month, after the company contacted him to try it out, since realtors are a target market.

Ross had a plan of 700 minutes per month, but routinely went over that limit, he says. “I would be surprised if I went over that now,” he says. So far, Ross says he hasn’t had any dropped calls using the new service. He doesn’t yet know how much money he has saved, but Ross says he is already happy with the service and is assuming he is saving a good deal of cash. “It’s been business as usual. I’ve never been more excited to look at a bill,” he says.

Related story: Skype aims to help users battle expensive roaming and Wi-Fi

Rogers has typically focused on the consumer market in the past, but in the last year has been putting more effort into targeting the SMB market, Fox says. “I see it as a really good thing,” she says.

She recommends Wi-Fi Calling for Business as an alternative, but warns SMBs to take location into account. Wi-Fi signals are limited by distance and signals are affected by poor weather, she says. They can also face capacity problems, especially with public Wi-Fi that may not accommodate many users. If the service becomes wildly successful, she says, and then it may be harder to find a signal-the equivalent of an annoying busy signal on the phone.  

But, SMBs are very cost sensitive, so it’s important to look for ways to save, Fox says. It will be interesting to see the new service’s impact on SMBs’ bills, Fox says. The success of the service will also really depend on ease of use, she says.

Harmeet Singh is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness. Follow her on Twitter, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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