Skype Offers Free WiFi, Pay-Per-Minute Access, New Partner Program

From Mobile World Congress, Skype is introducing two new partner programs and offering free WiFi across Spain through Feb. 18.

Skype announced two new programs from the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona this Valentine's Day, as well as sent out some love, with the limited offer of free Internet access across Spain.

Now through midnight Central European Time on Feb. 18, WiFi Internet connectivity is free through Skype Access-normally a pay-as-you go plan that lets users pay with Skype Credit to hop online via a hotspot.

Skype announced at the show that is has launched a partner program for WiFi hotspot operators around the globe-including BT Openzone, Fon, Tomizone, Row 44 and Vex-extending the number hotspots it makes available to users. Thanks to these partners, Skype users now have WiFi-based Internet access available to them in more than 500,000 locations, including 500 airports, 30,000 hotels and a number of trains, planes, offices, cafes and convention centers.

Instead of hourly or date rates, Skype Access users pay by the minute, starting at $0.06. All that's required is a Skype Access hotspot, some Skype Credit and the newest version of Skype for Mac or Windows.

The program additionally benefits the mobile operators, setting them up for a bit of extra cash and offering access to Skype's hordes of online users, which now number around 145 million folks per month, according to the company.

For mobile operators in markets with low 3G broadband penetration, Skype has also launched a Mobile Partner Program that lets the carriers extend the use of Skype to their customers. A client/server solution, it lets the carrier's customers place free Skype-to-Skype calls or discounted Skype-to-mobile and Skype-to-landline calls on more than 100 smartphones and feature phones and a variety of operating systems.

"We see a growing demand for differentiated services from mobile operators across the world," Russ Shaw, vice president and general manager of Mobile at Skype, said in a statement. "Our mobile operator program will give operators in emerging markets the possibility to tap into the global Skype community while providing a great user experience on a variety of mobile handsets."

Worldwide use of Mobile voice-over IP (VOIP) technology, like that used by Skype, as well as Fring and Google, among others, is expected to rise to nearly 139 million users by 2014, according to a Feb. 2 report from In-Stat. While mobile operators have generally been slow to embrace the technology-fearing for their bottom lines, as calls are diverted from their cellular networks-InStat expects operators to be a major driver of mobile VOIP's growth, as they figure out more comfortable methods of embracing the technology.

Also expected to spur the technology's growth will be its increased use by enterprise workers-who can video conference from their smartphones and use them as extensions of their deskphones-and its tie to social networking.

"As it becomes further incorporated into [mobile applications], specifically social networking apps, the real of potential use is expected to broaden," In-Stat analyst Amy Cravens said in the report.