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The VideoPhone Has Arrived - Almost


Vonage In Print News

The VideoPhone Has Arrived - Almost

February 13, 2004

By Hiawatha Bray

Just about anyone with high-speed Internet access via cable modem or DSL line can pump voice traffic over the line, with the right equipment. And there's enough digital bandwidth left over for streaming video as well. Besides, a computer can compress the video and audio signals, allowing for decent fidelity with minimal use of bandwidth.

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To those of us who grew up expecting an adult world full of space colonies, flying cars, and video telephones, the 21st century has been something of a letdown. But things may be looking up at last.

We've got robots on Mars, and a president eager to send people there as well. And now here come the videophones, with a major assist from the Internet.

Believe it or not, engineers from the old Bell System telephone monopoly started working on videophones in the 1920s. It wasn't until the 1960s that they came up with devices that were close to being practical, and these weren't close enough.

Sure, visitors to the New York World's Fair of 1964 loved them, and that video phone call from space to Stanley Kubrick's daughter on Earth was the only cute moment in Kubrick's ponderous masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey."

But the old Bell Picturephone system delivered lousy black-and-white images, with motion so jumpy it was more like a slide show than live video. Service cost a then-staggering $160 a month. And it wasn't enough for you to have a Picturephone -- you needed friends and relations crazy enough to sign up for the service as well, or there'd be no one on the other end to see and be seen.

This last is still one of the videophone's toughest problems. Hardly anyone uses them, and there's no point having one till lots of other people do. But resistance to the idea might fade if the phones gets better and the service gets cheaper.

Which is where the Internet comes in. Already, thousands of Americans are migrating their voice telephone service onto the Net, as they sign up with voice-over-Internet-Protocol phone companies like Vonage.

Just about anyone with high-speed Internet access via cable modem or DSL line can pump voice traffic over the line, with the right equipment. And there's enough digital bandwidth left over for streaming video as well. Besides, a computer can compress the video and audio signals, allowing for decent fidelity with minimal use of bandwidth.

Put it all together, and you've got something like the VisiFone Personal Videophone, made in Taiwan and designed in Dallas by Viseon Inc. With its complex setup procedure and its $599 price tag, the VisiFone is aimed at business users, not consumers.

But if Viseon follows through with plans to offer a cheaper, simpler version, the Taiwanese may have to build an extra factory or two to keep up with demand.

IP Address Issues

But not till they make it easier to get hooked up. All Internet communications rely on Internet protocol addresses. When you type www.boston.com, your Web browser first looks up the real IP address, which is a clump of numbers. Voip phones for consumers use a similar technology to translate standard phone numbers.

But the Viseon lacks this feature. You can only connect by dialing the raw IP address -- 10.0.22.61, for instance. And don't forget those dots.

So to use the phone, you need the IP address of the phone you want to call. Besides that, you must manually enter your own IP address into the phone's memory. Most home Internet users have "dynamic" addresses that change now and then. So you must occasionally reprogram the phone.

And many people with broadband connections use routers to share the connection with multiple computers. You guessed it: The router must be reprogrammed to recognize the phone. In all, it's a good deal more work than Alexander Graham Bell had in mind.

Why bother? Because once you're done, the voice at the other end is as crisp and as clear as you could ask. We tested a Viseon phone connected to a Verizon DSL broadband line, with impressive results. Even the hands-free speakerphone built into the unit sounds good.

As for the video images, while there's a bit of jerkiness, it's well within tolerable limits. A VisiFone is qute good enough for visually browbeating a lazy subordinate, or cooing with delight over a new grandchild.

For now, the few hundred users of VisiFone are business people who find it a good way to keep in touch with colleagues. Users just plug it into their existing broadband circuit and start dialing.

But the forthcoming consumer offering will probably be part of a Voip service from an upstart phone company or broadband provider.

In fact, the cable TV company Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSK) is running a consumer test of the phones in the Philadelphia area. The household version of the phone will sell for a rather more palatable $299, and will let users dial any telephone in the land using standard phone numbers.

There's already a good-size market for these phones. About a fifth of US households have broadband, with tens of thousands more signing up every week.

Still, that still puts us well behind countries like South Korea, where 75 percent of the population has broadband.

The trouble is that many Americans still see no compelling reason to pay for broadband. Cheap videophone service might be just the thing to change their minds.

Besides, we're three years into the 21st century already. We're overdue.



 
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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See www.vonage.com/911 for details.

** Certain call types excluded.

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