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Voip In Your Hands

September 22, 2004

By Greg Scoblete

For the last hundred years the home telephone was the gray flannel suit of home electronics -- consistent, reliable, functional and aggressively boring. With the rapid rise of the mobile phone, many industry prognosticators sounded the death knell for the boring old home phone, sweeping it into the dustbin of history in favor of its smaller, portable and feature-rich cellular successor.

The doomsayers are right, of course. The home telephone as we know it is dead (or, put charitably, dying), but home communications is on the brink of a sweeping and dramatic revolution that will transform the way we converse and interact.

The revolution comes courtesy of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology and the thousands of miles of fiber and coaxial that connects us to the Internet.

Today, if Voip has made any impression on the general public, it's as a cheap alternative to traditional telephone service. You use your existing home phone and the experience is largely identical to standard telephony (unless there's a blackout).

If inexpensive calling with your ordinary home phone doesn't quicken the pulse, it's largely because the Voip services being rolled out now are largely focused on getting the nuts and bolts right -- connecting the calls, ensuring consistent service and voice quality -- before they can delve into richer features. (Time Warner Cable's VP of voice technology, Liliane Zreik, speaking at a cable industry conference in May, considered it a milestone simply to be able to handle the 25 percent spike in traffic on her company's Voip network on Mother's Day.)

This goes double for those Voip providers who want to be a "primary line" service into the home, as many do. Before consumers (or the government, for that matter) will let the Voip line be the main communications pipe into the house it has to provide close to 100 percent reliability in connecting emergency 911 calls.

Once the service is reliable, Voip will blossom and flex its transformative muscle. The contours of this revolution are already evident in the current features available from companies like Vonage, which offers its customers access to voice mails through an Internet browser. You can also have new voice mails automatically e-mailed to you as an audio file. But this is only the beginning of what Voip can deliver.

For starters:

TV Caller ID: Since voice data can travel on the same cable that also delivers your television (if you're a cable TV subscriber) and Internet access, it's not terribly difficult to route incoming phone info to your television. Cable providers that offer VoIP, such as New York-based Cablevision, are already testing TV caller ID and voicemail retrieval and could roll out the service in early 2005. This can work in a number of ways: the caller ID info could pop up on the TV screen immediately when the phone rings. If you're immersed in the latest Sopranos and don't want to be disturbed you could hide all but emergency calls and review your caller ID log from the couch via remote control when the show's done (sorry Tommy Thomson, most Voip trends are distinctly sedentary).

This same caller ID info could also be routed simultaneously to your computer while you're busy reading (and thoroughly enjoying) the latest from TechCentralStation.

Ubiquitous caller ID is an interesting feature but really just an interim step to sending the entire phone call -- with video -- through the TV.

Videophone: The most dramatic near-term impact of Voip will be the videophone. The product that has been in the incubator since the 1964 World's Fair and still born on a number of occasions will be given a new lease on life thanks to Voip and improved digital compression.

To date video communications for those outside of the undisclosed location have been crumby; the video is blotchy and like a Hong Kong Kung-Fu flick, the voice is always lagging behind the moving mouth.

With VoIP, the voice and video data travel on far bigger pipeline than was possible over copper phone wire, and the compression technologies are better, resulting in real TV quality video and audio streamed across the Internet in real time. If Internet voyeurs jumped on Web-cams, they'll hit the ceiling (metaphorically) with video VoIP.

The first devices to capitalize on video Voip are already out, but because the market is embryonic, they're fairly conservative. They include 8x8's Packet8 Videophone and the forthcoming Ojo, a joint project from Motorola and WorldGate Communications. Both products plug directly into broadband modems, have built-in handsets and speakerphones and use small display screens for the video.

Cable companies, who want the box atop your TV to be the center of all the action, could go a step further and put a small camera and speakerphone in that set-top box and suddenly the TV is your video screen. The hardware for this is already available, and getting cheaper every day, it's merely a matter of demand and network architecture. If people start gobbling up standalone videophones and desire bigger and better viewing areas, the cable companies could fairly easily integrate video Voip into their service bundle.

Voice mail would be replaced by video mail, and caller ID info would include not just names and numbers, but a digital image of the person calling or perhaps a short, pre-recorded video clip. Rather than scrolling through caller ID info on the 2-inch LCD screen on your home phone, your TV would have a photo-record of the calls you've missed and you'd use your remote to navigate and initiate calls.
Wireless VoIP: Voip telephony will cut the cord quickly, thanks to two wireless Internet standards: the popular Wi-Fi (802.11) for distances of 300 feet and the developing WiMAX (802.16) for broadband Internet access at distances of about 30 miles.

Already New Jersey-based telecom company IDT is testing a Wi-Fi Voip service in the Newark, NJ area that uses special Wi-Fi phones to route calls across IDT's local Wi-Fi hotspots. Another provider, Vonage, announced that it will sell a Wi-Fi phone on its Web-site beginning in September. Both are positioning the Wi-Fi Voip products as a way to enjoy the cost-savings of Voip in a more mobile setting.
Once WiMAX gains steam (potentially as early as next year) wireless access will be liberated from the narrow geography of Wi-Fi hotspots. Conceivably entire metropolitan areas will be blanketed with wireless Internet access (a mega hot-spot), opening the door to far more robust applications than just wireless VoIP.

The added competition of Wi-Fi and WiMAX Voip will in turn force cellular providers to improve coverage and offer more competitive rates and value-added feature sets. Eventually, as handset costs decrease, the same video capabilities that Voip delivers to the home can be taken on the road with Voip handsets.

Interactive Gaming: Voip will also be a key component in true interactive gaming, allowing gamers to vocally and visually converse with opponents across the country -- or globe -- in real-time through the Internet while simultaneously playing video games on their TVs or computers. The ability to curse in multiple languages will be the hallmark of a new generation cosmopolitan video gamers.

Ironically, VoIP's biggest hurdle may not be technological but sociological. The biggest driver in communications to date has been mobility. Cellular phones didn't win a vast army of users because they provided superior voice quality or consistent service, but because they could liberate communications from fixed locations. Many of VoIP's most promising avenues require you to be stationary, seated before a videophone or TV. Given the trajectory of today's technology, which focuses on maximizing efficiency and puts a premium on multi-tasking, asking people to sit and focus on communicating to the exclusion of everything else might be a tall order.

Then again, VoIP's multimedia potential may tap into innate human needs for visual contact and a sense of true connection that only seeing the person you're speaking with can deliver. If that's the case, then VoIP's future is very bright indeed.

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