As data networks gain greater geographic coverage and people increasingly use data-based services instead of picking up the phone to communicate, mobile voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is starting to look like an attractive option for some organizations. VoIP has become a common solution in offices and some homes, and now it’s beginning to look like a viable replacement to cellphone service on mobile devices with the potential for cost savings to organizations that manage many devices.

VoIP services like Skype and Fring have become a popular option for individuals looking to save money on video chatting and international calling or just to cut down on mobile minutes. And 4G Internet services like FreedomPop are pushing VoIP as a complete replacement to the traditional mobile services model. Mobile VoIP can mean virtually free calls if a Wi-Fi network is available.

As far as government goes, it can be argued that mobile VoIP is ready, but it depends on the implementation, said Jeff Vining, research vice president for Gartner. Vining published a case study about a Canadian police station in St. Clair, Ontario, that uses VoIP for its officers working in the field. The decision was made to install Wi-Fi access points around the 30 square-mile area of the police department’s jurisdiction instead of upgrading its public dispatch system.

In that small region with just 10 police officers, it made more sense financially to install a VoIP infrastructure, Vining said. “For government service, [mobile VoIP] would probably be at the moment used in localized field areas only. It’s for a relatively small target audience,” he said. “It’s not ready for prime time, public safety, mission critical, but it can be used to augment smaller uses.”

In St. Clair, officers use Skype to communicate, the redundancy of the access points means there’s always a Wi-Fi connection available, and the department saves a lot of money that way, Vining said. As voice minutes continue to decrease in general and workers communicate through text and email more, it’s likely that mobile VoIP will see increased adoption, he said.

A recent study published by OpenSignal shows that the U.S. is slipping when it comes to mobile infrastructure. The U.S. is ranked No.15 in terms of 4G LTE service, and mobile data speeds have fallen since a similar study conducted last year. Fortunately for users of mobile VoIP, 2G and 3G service work fine just so long as they’re not trying to set up a video feed, said IT analyst Rob Enderle.

The thing to look out for, Enderle said, is that the network that’s going to be used needs to be low latency, which is something that's improved in recent years in the U.S. VoIP degrades much more rapidly than calls over cellphones, he explained. While sometimes mobile calls can sound good or bad, depending on the signal, VoIP is more or less an all-or-nothing affair. “That means that in most city centers, you can get a low-latency, high-enough bandwidth signal to get it to work,” Enderle said.

“The nice thing about VoIP is that you get a phone number that truly follows you because the phone number is tied to the service and the service can reside on any handset and any system. So you can get a 'follow-me' number once you go someplace and log in,” he explained. For someone managing a fleet of devices, the problem of managing users can be simplified. Users and organizations can gain qualitative benefits too, Enderle said. Workers using mobile VoIP would no longer need to worry about multiple phone numbers because they’re using the same number regardless of which device or network they're using.

For example, someone could be on a cruise ship and the person calling them wouldn’t know, Enderle said. Just so long as the user has a good data connection, it doesn’t matter where they are, what device they’re using and no one calling would know the difference. “If you can figure out a way through the carriers, a VoIP service can be drastically less expensive than a traditional service, even over cellphones,” he said. If the infrastructure is there, it works, he said, and it’s only going to get better.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.