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A fellow director at a recent board meeting asked me what phone I would recommend he buy that could be used anywhere in the world. My answer was that there isn’t one today but soon the answer will be a WiFi phone. More on that shortly. The closest thing available today would be a phone which is supported by T-Mobile. The question my friend should have asked is what service provides cell phone coverage in the most places around the world. The secondary question would be what phones are available that use that service. T-Mobile operates the largest all digital, nationwide wireless network based on GSM — Global System for Mobile Communications . T-Mobile covers most of the U.S. (more than 8,000 cities) and because it is based on GSM, it also works in 179 countries. GSM is the most widely used digital wireless standard in the world with more than 700 million subscribers.

It is often said that GSM is far superior to the various other cell phone provider choices in America. For most people the major benefit of ubiquitous GSM service would be the ability to pick whatever kind of phone you want to use. With other cellular plans you can’t do that. You must first pick the service provider in your area and then find out which phones they support. This can be extremely limiting, especially if you like to have the latest and greatest phone. (Note: click here for phones I am currently using)

With GSM, you select a service provider and they provide you with a GSM SIM card. (The SIM – Subscriber Identity Module – is a chip card, the size of a first class postage stamp.) You then select whatever GSM phone you want, insert the SIM card, and after keying in your personal identification number (PIN), you are up and running . If you later decide to get a new phone, you simply remove the SIM card from your old phone, insert it into the new phone, enter your PIN and you are back on the air again. This is such a simple and logical approach to mobile telephony.The SIM card microprocessor also contains your phonebook and personalized service information. Another benefit is that the SIM card guards against unauthorized use by requiring your PIN and it ensures that all calls are private – all transmissions are digitally encrypted to prevent eavesdropping or “cloning” of a phone number.

The ideal world would be one where all service providers supported GSM. All phones would quickly follow. Then you could chose whatever phone you wanted and be sure it would work in most parts of the world. Nice theory but unfortunately I do not see it happening. It could happen technically, but for various regulatory. competitive, and business model reasons, I put the odds at close to zero. There are just too many incompatible approaches being followed. In addition all the providers are striving to offer better Internet services as part of their cell phone offerings and thereby may introduce even more incompatibilities. Many providers are putting their hopes in 2.5G. The third generation of wireless phones is called 3G. It is based on a persistent connection to the Internet and speeds of +/- 100,000 bits per second along with digital voice. Most providers are scaling back on their 3G investments and moving ahead with 2.5G. The 2.5G services plan to use GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), which is capable of providing wireless Internet access at average speeds of 40 Kbps. GPRS services will clearly be better than what is available today but I am not convinced it will matter very much because of, you guessed it, WiFi.

The Global Phone I am waiting for is one that has a SIM card for authentication and security and also has a WiFi chip, and perhaps a GPRS capability thrown in too. With a phone like this, and if you are near a WiFi hotspot, you would have Internet capability at millions of bits per second, not tens of thousands. Streaming audio and video would be be natural. VoIP (voice over IP) would allow for crystal clear phone calls to anywhere in the world. Such a phone is not as far away as you might think. The IP Band Networks WiFi Phone has voice communication to a WiFi LAN installation which then allows simultaneous voice and data support on the same wireless backbone. Employing voice-over-IP technology based on the ITU standard H.323, the WiFi Phone converts analog voice into compressed digital packets that are sent over the Internet or company intranets. Broad support of VoIP solutions from major telephony vendors will allow integration with gateways which in turn will allow internal and external voice communication. Over time this new, simpler infrastructure will replace much of the telecommunications legacy which is currently holding things back.