Fring Brings 3G Video Calls to iPhone 4 — Are Networks Ready?

Fring has updated its voice-over-IP client, bringing support for the front-facing camera on Apple’s iPhone 4. Unlike the handset’s native FaceTime client, which is restricted to video calls over Wi-Fi and only to other iPhone 4 devices, the new Fring client supports video calls over 3G and calls to non-Apple devices such as those running Android and Symbian S60. With widespread platform support and 1.7 million iPhone 4s sold in the first three days of availability, Fring’s software is fast opening up the floodgates for mainstream video over cellular wireless.

But is AT&T’s network ready for 3G video calling on iPhone 4? Sure, Apple’s newest handset is sold outside of the U.S., but the U.S. (and thus the audience potentially affected by AT&T’s network) is significant. When Apple debuted FaceTime video calling on the iPhone 4, Steve Jobs said that Apple would be working with carriers to support the service over 3G in the future. There could be technical reasons for such a statement such as the need to figure out how to transfer calls between Wi-Fi and 3G without having to hang up, for example, but there’s also a question of network capability as well.

Russ Shaw, VP of Skype Mobile, which provides a similar VoIP service currently without mobile video support, recently told Om that it didn’t want to release any product that would disappoint users. With the user experience highly reliant upon the 3G network, Shaw’s caution is warranted, especially went it comes to video, which requires more bandwidth than voice alone. And given how a 3G network offers varying speeds due to signal, location, the number of people wirelessly connected to a tower and backhaul in use at the time, video calling over Wi-Fi will typically offer a more positive experience.

Unfortunately, carriers had better get ready for an uptick in video-calling and video transfer in general. A recent Pew report indicates a near-doubling of consumers recording mobile video in the past year. Capturing and uploading such video is just a start — once the user-base of clients like Fring, Skype and FaceTime reach critical mass, handset owners could be flooding mobile pipes with video calls. Indeed, our own GigaOM Pro research report on video calling (subscription required) estimates that the mobile video chat market will have more than 143 million customers by 2015. Let’s hope the carriers fulfill their planned 4G upgrades and embrace high-quality video calling on the faster, new networks.

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