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Archive for the ‘VoIP’ Category

Commodity Battle: AOL vs. Skype

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

Its not uncommon for technology companies to choose a complement to their core technology and try to make it a commodity. This can be a very successful approach: Microsoft’s OS market share has doubtless been aided by cheap, commodity-class PCs.

Sometimes when you’re developing two complementary bits of technology, it makes sense to commoditize one of them to aid the other — this is the traditional “give away the razor, sell the razor blades” model. Printer manufacturers have embraced this model with such gusto that some have even started using crytpographic handshakes between the printer and toner cartridges in an attempt to prevent the manufacture of third-party toner cartridges. (For what it’s worth, Lexmark’s use of the DMCA to make compatibility not just difficult but actually illegal seems to have been rejected by the courts).

For a long time, several companies — such as Skype and Yahoo — have offered voice clients free for download; this commodity complemented their profit-earning PSTN interwork services (e.g. SkypeOut). AOL has been slow to enter this market, in part due to an agreement they made with the FTC as part of their merger with Time Warner (they agreed to open up their AIM network to interoperability before deploying VoIP). Earlier this month, AOL announced a VoIP service to accompany their AIM software. The big splash from this announcement, however, is that AOL is offering free phone numbers and free inbound calls. Outbound calls still cost money.

In apparent response, Skype has announced that, through December of this year, all outbound calls using their Skype client are free.

As long as they’re willing to sign up for two services and run two clients, potential customers can now have a completely free inbound and outbound phone service. It will be interesting to see what happens when you have one company giving away the razors, and another giving away the razorblades.

T-Mobile bans VoIP and IM from new UK 3G Data Service

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

(Apologies for violating my policy of not repeating stuff on slashdot. Also for basing a US-centric rant on a UK story.)

It seems that T-Mobile has released a new 3G data service in the UK. Sounds pretty neat, except their terms of service explicitly ban the use of VoIP or IM applications. The referenced article speculates that they plan to offer their own VoIP service.

If they are banning such applications because they think their network can’t deal with it, that is bad enough. But if they are banning them because they don’t want competition with their own service, then that is a real problem.

Believe it or not, I tend towards a laissez faire business philosophy, and really do believe the market will solve this sort of thing, if it is allowed to do so. I’m perfectly happy to let T-Mobile, or anyone else, have whatever network policies they like, under the condition that I am allowed to select a network provider that has policies that I like. The problem is, there are real barriers to entry for access network services, most of which are created by some regulatory regime in the first place. Whether it is regulation of spectrum, regulation of who can run a wire to my house, or regulation of who can provide service in my community, it’s still regulation.

Let’s not protect network providers from competition with one hand while freeing them to restrict access with the other.

Open Source SigComp Project Launched

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

SigComp, an IETF-developed technology for compression of signalling messages, is considered important for certain wireless SIP applications (notably push-to-talk, although its application to other applications is getting some attention as well).

The Open SigComp project web site launched last week. The purpose of this project is to produce and maintain an open source SigComp stack. Not only will this assist in research and prototyping work around the SigComp protocol, but it should also help in the continued development of the SigComp protocol within the IETF.

Vonage: Customer Service Reponds

Saturday, April 2nd, 2005

You may recall my Vonage rant a while back. I sent them mail to clarify the situation at that time, but didn’t hear back. (In the interim, I’ve settled on Delta Three’s iconnecthere service).

Almost two months after I sent my query to Vonage Customer Service asking about the activation, shipping, and termination charges, I finally got two responses. Taken together, they fall into the “heart is in the right place, but head is up their ass” category. Compare:

Dear Adam,

Thank you for contacting customer care. Please forgive the delay in 

As regards your email, no in the case of a retail activation you would 
not pay an activation fee. Although a termination fee is applied to 
all canceled lines, if you call us and explain the situation most 
agents will waive the fee and refund the charge. 

Thank you,

Nik Drumm
customer care agent
second shift

Then, 11 hours later:

Dear Sir/Madam

Thank you for contacting Customer Service. I am sorry for any delay in

In response to your email. If you purchase the adapter from a retail 
location, there would be no activation fee, disconnect fee, or shipping 

Thank you for choosing Vonage and I do hope that I have answered your
questions. Do not hesitate to contact us if you need further assistance.

Customer Service Representative

So… there is a termination fee? There isn’t one? What? Do these guys even know what they’re doing? I appreciate the snappy seven-week turn-around time on customer care, but the responses don’t give me much confidence.

Texas v. Vonage

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

Following an incident in Houston in which a Vonage subscriber was unable to reach 911 in an emergency, the Texas Attorney General has filed suit against Vonage. The suit seeks suitable notice to subscribers about the (rather crippling) deficiencies in Vonage’s 911 service.

There are a few problems with the way that Vonage currently handles 911, and I’ve been warning people about them for a couple of years. The first is that, by default, dialing 911 simply plays a recording saying “you don’t have 911.” You have to activate 911 service before you can use it, and apparently Vonage doesn’t make this clear enough to new subscribers. Further, it takes several days after such a request before 911 service becomes active.

The second problem is that 911 calls (with very rare exception) are routed to an administrative number for the emergency center, not the 911 operators themselves. So, the person answering the phone isn’t able to actually dispatch emergency services; in fact, by and large, they’re simply a secretary without any emegency training at all. A correlary to this is the fact that, in many locations, calls to Vonage’s 911 service outside of business hours will simply go unanswered.

The third and final problem is that (once again, with rare exception), Vonage has no technical means to transfer location information to the emergency centers. Even a very technical friend of mine using Vonage as a primary line replacement was unclear on this fact. She thought that the fact that she gave her address to Vonage in the process of 911 service activation meant that the 911 center would have this information available, and Vonage did nothing to inform her otherwise. So, even people working in the VoIP industry lack the knowledge to figure out this information; what hope does the average consumer have?

Don’t get me wrong. As long as you can wait until business hours to have your unexepected emergency, have figured out that you need to register for 911 with Vonage, aren’t in the multi-day activation period, limit yourself to emergencies that leave you physically and mentally capable of giving your location, and don’t mind untrained personnel fielding your emergency calls, then using Vonage as a primary line replacement is just fine. And that may be good enough for some people. But I agree that it needs to be a choice people make for themselves with adequate information.

QoS Considered Harmful

Friday, March 18th, 2005

Cringlely has an interesting take on QoS. What happens when the ISP tags the traffic for its own services to have a higher class of service than that of all those third party services? I’ve heard lots of arguments that best effort is good enough for VoIP if you have sufficient bandwidth. But that will fall apart pretty quickly if it has to compete with lots of higher priority traffic.

This could be the big ISP’s best shot ever at breaking that annoying end-to-end internet. Now, Cringely did not present any evidence the ISP’s were actually doing this–but I keep hearing more and more carrier-associated people claiming that VoIP is not deployable without QoS. This, in spite of all the services that work “well enough” without it.

(And yes, I just violated my on policy of not posting things already on slashdot again.)

Random Trademark Fact: “Push to Talk” now free

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

I have, until now, been under the impression that the term “Push to Talk” is a trademark of either Motorola or of Nextel, and that using it in a more general sense was generally asking for trouble.

Then, today, I spotted a Verizon ad advertizing their “Push to Talk phone.” The capitalization is theirs, which gives it almost a trademarked feel. However, there isn’t any indication of trademark ownership anywhere in the ad (aside from the places you’d expect it — next to the Verizon logo, for example).

So, I checked with the USPTO (which doesn’t let you bookmark into trademark searches, but you can go here, click on “trademark search,” then “basic search” and type in “Push to Talk”), and apparently, Nextel (who had previously registered the term “Push to Talk”) abandoned its use of the trademark in November of 2004.

That said, the term “Push to Talk Worldwide” has been registered as a service mark in a VoIP context by an individual (not a company). Also, Motorola is still maintaining a trademark on the term “P2T,” although that registration explicitly says that they don’t claim “PTT” as a trademark. “PTT” used to be registered by a company I’m not familiar with, but its use was abandoned in 2000.

So, there you go. For the time being, it appears that you can use “Push to Talk” and “PTT” without any fear of the lawyers coming after you1. In fact, they’ve probably become common enough that trademarking them would be pretty much impossible.

“PoC” doesn’t appear to be registered in the U.S.; although, any such registration would probably be difficult due to nontrivial overlap with the trandmarked name of “POC,” owned by Physical Optics Corporation, which makes data switching equipment for telecom and datacom networks.

1 Anyone taking legal advice from a blog deserves any trouble they get.

Followup: The Guilty Party

Friday, March 4th, 2005

So, it turns out the ISP — or at least one of them — who had started blocking port 5060 so as to disrupt VoIP services is a little company called “Madison River Communications.”

The problem appears to be cleared up now. And the fine is big enough that it would definitely deter… umm… most people who had to pay it out of their own pocket?

Dart Mail

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005

It occurs to me that this technique could be adapted to other carrier media. Anyone want to help me write an update to RFC 1149 for large content indirection?

ISPs Blocking SIP Ports

Monday, February 14th, 2005

So, here’s an interesting news article about ISPs — apparently mostly rural ILECs — blocking port 5060 so as to disrupt VoIP traffic. Vonage has filed a complaint with the FCC, which is investigating.

Vonage? Probably Not.

Friday, February 11th, 2005

So, since I finally have a respectable broadband pipe to my house, I was planning on getting Vonage’s service set up. Using the cell phone is kind of a pain for long calls (even under good circumstances, you get voice quality problems from time to time), and I can’t really tie up our home phone line too much when I work from home.

I know that there are a lot of similar services out there (AT&T’s Callvantage, Packet 8, Broadvoice, Lingo, etc.) but Vonage had my mindshare. They were the first real player in the field. They were Jeff Pulver’s company. They were the ones doing VoIP before VoIP was cool.

So, I poked around, figured out that I could get a phone adapter for free from Circuit City, pick it up from the store for instant satisfaction, and have the whole thing up and running in under an hour. 500 minutes anywhere in the U.S. or Canada for $15 a month sounded like a pretty good deal to me.

So, I went to the Vonage site and started figuring out how much my actual costs would be. There’s a $30 service activation fee, which seems a bit high, and is more than a little disappointing, but I can understand that they might have to charge to add a user to the system, since they don’t have any “you must stay a customer for x months” clause like, for example, cellphone carriers do.

Then, I started reading the contract terms.

…[T]he Service and Device are provided to you as a residential user, for your personal, residential, non-business and non-professional use. This means that you are not using them for any commercial or governmental activities, profit-making or non-profit, including but not limited to home office, business, sales, tele-commuting…

Hrmph. That kind of rules out what I want to use it for. On the other hand, there’s little chance that they’d bother figuring out — or even have a good way of figuring out — whether I’m complying with this provision.

So, I keep reading.

Customer will be charged a disconnect fee of $39.99 ($49.99 CAD) per voice line upon termination of Service for any reason or for convenience by Customer. The disconnect fee becomes due and payable immediately upon termination and will billed directly to Customer’s credit card.

Whoa! What? $40 to cancel the service? On top of a $30 activation fee? You want to charge me $70 in adminstrative fees? Consider me already cancelled. Vonage isn’t getting a penny out of me. And the goodwill is gone.

Anyone have any suggestions for VoIP providers who don’t hate their customers?

VoIP Security Alliance?

Monday, February 7th, 2005

This is the first I’ve heard of VOIPSA. Am I just behind the curve?

Sure, it was just announced today, according to the VOIPSA website, but shouldn’t there have been some buzz around this?

I’ll note that the technical advisory board is huge, and that I recognize only two names (Henning Schulzrinne and Ofir Arkin) out of 23. Surprising omissions include Jon Peterson and Jari Arko.

The New Economics

Tuesday, January 11th, 2005

Comcast is entering the VoIP market, and they’re doing it with a bizarre strategy: aim to be the most expensive in the market. What could possibly draw customers to your service more rapidly than charging almost twice as much as the incumbents?

It’s okay. Customers get “additional services” for their $180 a year. I think “battery backup” is the only one Comcast could cite when pressed. That’s right! For the low, low fee of $15 a month, you can effectively lease a UPS! That’s right. If you plan to keep your service only one month, you come out ahead! Otherwise, you can just go with Vonage and buy your own $15 UPS to plug your ATA into.

I should have paid more attention in high-school economics. I don’t remember this part.

Interesting SIP solutions

Thursday, January 6th, 2005

Today, a couple of interesting products popped up on press releases. The first one is an 802.11 SIP handset with 80 hours of standby time and 4 hours of talk time. This is pretty amazing for a wifi device.

The second interesting product is a SIP server that you can run on an unmodified Linksys WRT54GS wireless access point. Taken together, these products appear to give you a fairly complete wireless SIP solution for your home.


Monday, December 20th, 2004

Action: Wanadoo France offers buggy VoIP service and then charges customers a premium to call their support line.

Reaction: Citing a lack of training in the new VoIP service and a critical shortage of triple-cream brie, Wanadoo’s customer support reps walk off the job in protest.

SIP and Proprietary Extensions

Wednesday, December 8th, 2004

Over at ITBusiness, Vawn Himmelsbach scratches the surface of how proprietary extensions are damaging SIP. It’s very fluffy, but I think it’s good that this is finally getting some press. Awareness might actually breed changes in behavior, so that people try to do things in a more standard fashion.

A Good Day for VoIP Standards

Saturday, December 4th, 2004

Today, we saw the publication of three interesting RFCs. RFC3966, provides a long-needed update to the definition of “tel:” URLs; in particular, it cleans up some issues regarding the use of tel: URLs in SIP.

The second and third are even more exciting: RFCs 3951 and 3952, which define a low-bitrate codec for general-purpose internet use, and an RTP payload to carry that codec, respectively. Hats off to the crew at GIPS who made this happen. Now, let’s go out and make it the codec that’s used on the internet. I look forward to the day when iLBC use exceeds that of G.711.

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