Happy New Year!
I would like to wish Happy New Year to one and all. Given the event of the past week, I hope the solidarity among us thrives and we continue to help each other to overcome travails of life.
Personally, today I mark one full year of maintaining this blog. I would like to thank all of you for reading my entries and engaging in useful dialog. Unlike many others who maintain blogs on the communication industry, I do not break news stories. I don’t write often; even when I write, I am not prompt. Still, I gather that you find it interesting to read my point of view.
I would like to specifically thank Jeff Pulver, Om Malik and David Beckemeyer for their early encouragement and patronage. They added me to their blog roll on the first day itself. That helped me a lot in introducing my blog to many of you.
I hope I am able to continue to contribute to exchange of thoughts on our chosen field.
Recent announcements from Xcelis and AT&T are a study in contrast.
Earlier Xcelis had announced a service wherein a cell user gets unlimited airtime to any US number, by proxying the call through Xcelis using phone-to-phone service offered by cell service providers. This was doomed to be a failure because the cell providers are not going to standstill. Now it looks like thye have redefined themselves to be purveyor of a product rather than a service. Their new plan seems to be to sell a product which will patch a cell call and a wireline or VoIP call. I am not concerned whether there is a market demand for this or not. Similar products are already available in the market from i2 and Pulver innovations and WHP wireless. Since this is n end user device, there could be many suppliers and if the market determines it is a useful product the competitive market will reduce the price and increase the functionality. I would say that Xcelis has recognized the reality.
Now let us look at AT&T. They think they can offer enhanced services and can charge premium to boot. Call Record and Send and Call filtering two examples of such premium service. These features could be easily developed in the device itself. There is no need to pay a monthly fee to AT&T. I implore any and all VoIP proponents to keep this in mind and not fall into the “Bellhead” trap of paying a monthly fee. Remember the refrain: VoIP is a product, not a service.
A couple of days back I wrote about my feelings regarding civil administration and citizenry related to the recent tragic event. Subsequently I read a column by Dilip D'Souza. There he suggests that US NOAA could have taken additional efforts to reach Indian authorities and inform them of the impending disaster. Even though the real thrust of his column is a much needed social reform, I am focusing on whether India had early warning, whether the authorities did anything about it and more importantly whether the general public would heed such warnings. That was my point in that entry. Today there is a news item that tragically tells us that the answer to the first two questions is in the affirmative. You should read that story (I am fuming here and so I am afraid that I will not be able to cogently summarize the story) and look for additional confirmation. If the story is shown to be accurate, it is a sad commentary on a nation that is otherwise very proud of its abilities.
"Yesterday a Muslim man came to me and asked, 'Father, can I enter the church? Can I stay here?' I told him that we are all God's children. You are welcome to stay here. It is only because of my cassock that you can make out that I am a Christian. I cannot look at you and think that." Father A Anthony Swamy, parish priest at Lazarus Church, Chennai
It is an eerie feeling to read about a major calamity, especially so if it has struck close to home. The first thing I did was to take stock of the closed ones; having been blessed, the attention turns to immediate victims and try to identify means by which to relate to their sorrows and find means of helping them. No amount of prior reading of Baghavad Gita and Shankara helps. Rationally it may be Maya; but when you are engulfed in it, it sure feels real.
Then sorrow turns to desperation and then anger. If you feel it is unseemly to express anger this early, please stop reading further. But my feelings are strong and are felt for a long period of time. I read that usually it takes a long time for tsunami to hit after an event like earthquake. In this case, there was at least 2 hours notice and one could walk away from it in about 15 minutes. How can a nation that is IT for the whole world couldn’t spread this information? Wouldn’t a simple RSS feed have done the trick. Somebody with a bullhorn on the Marina beach might have saved more than a handful. The government failed big time. But nothing in India is straight forward. The sightseeing public that thronged to the beach area were hampering rescue efforts. Law enforcement authorities were frustrated, but couldn’t control the crowd. Does the Police know only “lathi charge” and live bullets to control the bullets? Would the public have heeded warnings issued by the officials?
Let me conclude this tirade with a constructive suggestion. We should require from wireless operators an SMS service something like an “inverse 911” service. With this service, the government will be able to broadcast emergency announcement using SMS to all cell phones. The message must be easily identified to be an emergency message and of course it couldn’t be spammed.
Last week an executive of an Indian subsidiary of eBay was arrested in India. This was widely reported in India along with vociferous objections from luminaries of Indian industry. If you have not read these two links then please read them and then read this news item about FBI summoning several Philippine executives regarding a dispute involving AT&T and MCI. I searched in vain CNET about this. I guess there are fundamental differences in these two cases.
In any event, here is an update on the Indian case; if you find out about the US case against the Philippine case.
I didn’t know how to react when I read this press release. It suggests that VoIP suffers from many deficiencies. This is not surprising once I found out that FreeChoice Communications is in the business of offering PSTN service. But what is surprising is that they declare that PSTN is analog and they claim that to be the reason for the reliability of PSTN. What a switch. Usually it is the PSTN antagonists that derisively label it to be analog.
Many moons back I had posted my understanding of the business behind virtual numbers and then subsequently I posted some corrected information. Both of them was in reference to an organization (a business enterprise?) called VoIPuser. Yesterday I received an email from Dean, a principal in that company sent me an email that explains further the charging mechanism. Since my post could be used to suggest that it is VoIPuser is the one charging the higher fee, I thought I will post his entire email for your reference. This is my summary: some callers may be charged a higher fee; but it is collected by the local service provider; VoIPuser gets the same amount from all service providers, which is regulated; they use the revenue to fund the operational costs. My take is that even if VoIPuser is not a villain here, you have to careful in subscribing this service if your friends and relatives (for whose benefit you are doing this in the first place) are using the “greedy” access providers who charge higher fees.
I'm afraid I'm a bit behind with my keeping up with blogs and only just noticed this one about UK DID's :
I thought I would drop you a line to clarify the position about UK DID's as there could be the impression from that entry that VoIP User are charging "exhorbitant" rates which is not actually the case.
0844 and 0870 numbers are allocated by BT as part of the local-loop "unbundling" process (historical unravelling of a monopoly).
BT are regulated by Ofcom in the pricing structures of these numbers to third parties in that they are not able to charge ISP's more than 5p/min for these number ranges, and 10p/min for the 0871 range.
VoIP User gets a fractional share of the 5p/min revenue which goes into our community outbound "pot" (currently in the domain of our beta-testers and we hope to launch to public this week).
Other ISP's (for example One-Tel or Kingston Communications) are not regulated in these ranges by Ofcom. Yet. This is likely to change next year.
What this means at the moment is, for example, One-Tel could charge their customers (the calling party), say 20p/min.
This would not increase the revenue share for either BT or consequently VoIP User, or any other third party reseller. We, as with others, still get a revenue share of 5p/min. One-Tel, in this example, would make an additional 15p/min profit.
So, in this example, the provider making the "exhorbitant" margins (and I agree with you in this respect) would be One-Tel (the callers provider), and would be a matter for the consumer to take up with One-Tel and complain, or move to a more reasonable PSTN provider.
All our revenue, after server hosting costs, goes into our community pool which is to be released to the public for free use.
We certainly are not out to incur anybody exhorbitant call charges. In this respect your blog entry raises a good point and I have now amended our control panel (which I will upload this evening) where users choose numbers to make it absolutely clear that the 5p/min and 10p/min numbers are based on BT call rates and that callers may be charged more than the quoted rate if their service provider is not BT and is somewhat less than reasonable.
If those service providers were fully regulated, or consumers chose a better provider, the non-geographic 5p/min numbers actually represent reasonable value, especially when you consider that at 5p/min on BT rates we will route a call to almost any landline on the planet.
When we launch our free community outbound service, we will be issuing a new number range, for SIP/IAX2 only, at a fixed 3p/min (BT rates) at any time of day. That will make us the lowest cost DID provider in the UK and at 3p/min our numbers would actually be cheaper than BT PSTN costs during the daytime.
The issue with non-geographic numbers is not with the supplier of those numbers, but with the telephone ISP's who are charging them out with an exhorbitant profit margin on top.
Conversely, I should point out that some providers actually charge less than the quoted 5p and 10p/min rates.
O2, a UK mobile phone provider, in fact include 0870 number ranges a part of their customers call plan, meaning that anyone from an O2 mobile phone could call one of our 0870 numbers within their "free minutes" package and not get charged anything further. Many of our members who are with O2 are using that facility to make international calls within their free minutes dial-plan.
PS I would have posted a comment on your blog entry but I think the opportunity to do so has timed out - my bad for not being up to date!
SOYO Group took a press release today indicating that Walmart is selling their VoIP phone through their website. Indeed it is available in Walmart’s website for $100. The phone comes with $5 worth of PSTN call time. Incidentally, the phone is available at SOYO’s website that comes with $50 worth of PSTN call time. PSTN connectivity is provided by Z-Connect and charges are comparable to many calling card rates. For example, calls to US are charged $.03 per minute. It will cost $10 per month for the ability to receive calls from PSTN. The main focus seems to be cheaper calls to PSTN. Since the rates are comparable to calling cards that are already available, the real advantage is the simplified dialing procedure. But it is a very simple matter for a calling card company to build a specialized but an inexpensive PSTN phone that provides an equivalently simple dialing procedure. One would have thought that Walmart would have taken that route.
In a recent article, Russell Shaw described a patent filed by NEC regarding music on hold for VoIP. The crux of the idea is to stream the media using multicast, if the end-point is capable of receiving multicast. Reading that article took me on a memory lane that is more than 20 years now.
As a newcomer to the field, I had “radical” opinions (that wounded me mortally) on ISDN services. One of them was that the Class 5 switch should not decide whether a line is busy or not. It should be decided by the user. The rationale was that since ISDN provides a signaling link to the user, the switch can inform the user of an incoming call independent of whether the user is on a call or not. The idea was rejected out of hand. I didn’t suggest that there is no need for services based on busy condition; just that the user decides the status. So the concern was not that this may lead to loss of potential revenue; it went against the normal mode of operation.
Unfortunately this affliction has been ported to VoIP as well. Many service providers proudly list call waiting and call waiting caller id in their list of features. Voice mail is still offered at the destination, instead of the call originator being told to send an email to a designated account. (If that was the case, then my professional contacts will send their voice mail to my office email account, social friends to my personal account and unknowns to my “junk” email.)
Let us take a look at hold feature in detail. In POTS, there is no way to notify you when I come back after putting you on hold. So you are forced to keep holding the phone and wait. So music on hold is a good service because it takes into account the human psychology. The nature of the network is such that it is not very easy to customize the music. With ISDN, there is no real need because the end-points could use the signaling link. For more than one reason it was not realized. In any event, the bearer channel connection must be kept up during the period of hold anyway; so we might as well pipe some music through it. But the situation is different with IP. The two end-points can have a direct signaling link. So the held party can be alerted when the other party comes on line. Since there is nothing has keeping the media link up; sending media while being held is unnecessary consumption of network bandwidth. That means there is no need for me to play music of my choice and for you to suffer through it. Even if one is compelled to play music, isn’t it better to provide the appropriate URL to the held party and let that user determine whether to listen or not?
A similar movement is developing regarding ringback tones. Why do you have to hear the tone that I selected? Shouldn’t you be selecting the tones that you would like to hear?
So let us not be just Netheads, who port current features and service to the Net; instead let us be netheads, who design services and features appropriate for Net while making sure that customization and individuality are maintained.
The following is a clip from an otherwise critical review of Skype: “Users connect directly to each other by automatically finding the best routes to each other machine.” I have seen equivalent statements at other places and also have heard this from routing experts as well. If this is true then the value in Skype is not in voice communication, but in its ability to supplant IP routers as well. I am sure there have been instances of Skype addressing more substantial ills of the world. Isn’t it time to deify Skype?
Richard Stastny identifies (and pointed out by Andy) a paper from Columbia University that describes P2P based IP telephony using SIP. James Seng has dismissed it as not very useful. Given the pedigree of the senior author, it might be instructive to review the paper. Earlier I had claimed (only rhetorically) that this could be done. Dr. Mark Petrovic and David Beckemeyer have subsequently released SIPshare, a SIP based P2P communications system. So its description of a P2P system using SIP is not the interesting part of the paper. But the discussion regarding the tradeoffs in the design choices is useful. There are instances where the paper makes certain claims that are not fully explored. But the implication of these claims has much import for the industry. This entry gives a short summary of the paper with a special emphasis on the implications of the design choices.
They identify five most desired characteristics of a P2P system: Zero configuration, Heterogeneous nodes, Efficient lookup, Advanced services, Interoperability. This will guide them in selecting specific aspects of their architecture. At one point they state that, “SIP-based IP telephony can be treated as a P2P system with static set of super-nodes (SIP servers) where the lookup is based on DNS instead of a hash key.” This gives us a hint at their approach – identify some nodes to be “supernodes” (as used by Skype) and make them behave like SIP proxy, redirect proxy and location server. But the difficulty lies in developing a scheme for identifying the supernodes and the means of exchanging reachability information among the supernodes.
The paper describes multiple ways by which a node can discover a supernode, none of them satisfactory. Multicasting and caching are suggested, but quickly rejected. The only reliable mechanism is to have a central registry that can assist in listing an initial list of supernodes. (Skype uses this scheme as well.)
Next the paper explores means by which service like offline messages (voicemail) can be realized. The alternatives are easy to guess; but no satisfactory scheme is presented. Indeed, the paper does not recognize the insufficiency of the solution. The suggested method of storing the messages at the supernodes will not work. What is the guarantee that the supernode will be available when a node is ready to retrieve the messages? The interesting thing is that the paper suggests use of email by the supernodes, but do not suggest that this be done by the nodes themselves.
As has been discussed elsewhere, Skype maintains the contact information locally. This is a problem for users who may have multiple access devices. The paper anticipates this problem and suggests that user profile information be stored in the P2P overlay network and be retrieved can at startup. Here again, use of an email account would be a preferable solution. There are applications that use email as a network based file system. So it will be straight forward to store the profile information in the email storage and retrieve, update and save them in real time.
Problem with supernode architecture:
Supernodes consume both local and network resources. Even some of Skype users have expressed concern over this issue. “[So] there should be a reasonable incentive to become a super-node to provide services to other peers.” The paper suggests that an incentive system be put in place credit for doing services which can later be used for using the services. Then, nodes that run out of credits and refuse to pay are declined the service. There are two problems with this approach. The paper does not describe how this reward system will be administered and enforced. The second point is that just like the rest of the VoIP industry, this paper identifies completing calls to PSTN to be the only monetized service. If PSTN is a dinosaur and will disappear imminently, how useful is the reward system?
This is the basic deficiency of the paper: Given all the difficulties of realizing a P2P sytem, it does not make an argument why P2P system is preferable for IP communications as opposed to a system that uses publicly and freely available resources like DNS and email servers. A P2P system seems to be too much work for no real tangible benefit. But the hype associated with P2P and its close cousin “serverless” seems to be just too alluring.
PS: There is an interesting statistics regarding Skype – “Successful user location in Skype takes about three to eight seconds.”
A while back Martin had posted about Presence and the need for contextual information with the ambient data aggregated. He used a picture of shoes by the front door. I wonder whether he got the idea from Mahabharat. You see, the protagonists in that Hindu epic, who are five brothers and practiced polyandry, had an arrangement to leave the shoe by the bedroom door to notify the other four. He also suggests that a dozen shoes will signify a dozen shoes. Is that a baker's dozen to signify another ancient event?
PS: Yes, people have commented about my (wierd) sense of humor.
Andy mentioned about BlogJet in one of his recent posts. So I downloaded and testing it out. I am posting this from this application.
Continuing from “How to Count”, I have confirmed that Yahoo!BB ADSL service now includes access to VoIP service with usage charges. (Page 33). The DSL modem has a built-in ATA. A couple of interesting aspects of their services are that their service is not “nomadic” and it is not intended to displace PSTN. Indeed, it uses PSTN for failover and emergency services. The ARPU for the phone service is 1100 yen per month based on a charge of 7.5 yen per minute. If my arithmetic is right it comes down to 2B minutes per month. When it comes to service providers that bundle access and VoIP interconnect, the usage is a more accurate measure.
Do me a favor and note down your immediate reaction as you read the following question: Suppose the incumbents roll out DSL along the lines of Yahoo!BB, meaning that they bundle VoIP with DSL and PSTN. Would we continue to say that VoIP should be unregulated? If so, have we become the front men for the incumbents?
Yesterday, Vonage announced that they will be soon unveiling video service. Almost immediately, VoicePulse announced their intention to add video capability as well. Many bloggers have discussed this set of announcements, some expressing their reservations. I do not know whether these offering will be successful in the marketplace or not. But it is clear for me that these are products and not services and expecting to charge for it on a monthly basis is either pure evil or sheer foolishness. This note puts forward the rationale for such a damaging claim.
First let us state the facts uncluttered with personal opinions. The plan is to offer a videophone that the subscribers need to buy from the service provider. Then for a monthly fee (Packet8 charges $10, not free as erroneously stated by Voxilla; Vonage and VoicePulse will not reveal the fee structure – that means it is not free), the subscribers can setup sessions to exchange video images between themselves.
Now let us analyze this scheme a bit critically. The first question is whether they are offering a service and if so what is the nature of the service. There are three functions a service provider can potentially perform:
The directory service is independent of whether the service is for voice or video session. If they use UDP hole punching technique for NAT/Firewall traversal, then again the level of service they offer is same for both voice and video session. But if they carry the traffic through a network node or if they offer QoS, then they offer a higher grade of service for video compared to voice. But still I will not call it a video service; they are offering a different level of transport service that happens to be suitable for a video session. You might dismiss this to be nitpicking. I am suggesting that it is critical if you happen to believe in the Stupid Networks.
Now let us consider the specific case of Packet8, which charges an additional $10 for video service. In their FAQ, they provide the rationale for the extra charge:
“In addition to providing you with a next-generation communication device to make video calls over the Internet, Packet8 VideoPhone functions as a regular telephone as well, able to accept and receive audio POTS (plain old telephone service) calls. Along with this capability is the luxury of being able to make UNLIMITED regular calls to any phone anywhere in the US and Canada as well as international calls for rock bottom prices. Our low monthly fee for UNLIMITED video calls, let alone audio-only calls, is a great deal compared to regular telephone companies as well as our competitors in broadband telephone service.”This explains why they are charging $20 per month for basic plan but not the extra $10. I feel that $10 is not sufficient to support unlimited QoS enabled bandwidth. So I am tempted to conclude that the only things they are offering is the directory service and NAT/Firewall traversal using UDP hole punching technique.
This demonstrates that what they are offering is a product and not a service. If so, one should ask one self whether it is worth paying extra to the service provider. The answer is not straight forward. I am of the opinion that TiVO is a product and not a service; but people are perfectly willing to pay a monthly fee in the guise of downloading the program guide that is freely available. On the other hand, D-Link offers a video over IP product called i2Eye that comes with free directory service and the customer has to provision the NAT/Firewall. But there are no recurring service charges. Once more, IP Communications is a “product” and not a “service”. We are better off to keep this in mind. Not just PSTN service providers can be evil.
On a lighter note compare the pictures of the phones from Packet8 and Vonage and then read Citron’s quote: “…[videophone] will be more than just a phone with a camera slapped on it. It will have features never before available to consumers.”
Richard Stastny identifies (and pointed out by Andy) a paper from Columbia University that tries to empirically observe the workings of Skype. Many of the findings confirm earlier claims. Some findings are new and have implications to us who are interested in developing an open system. The following is a collection of excerpts from the paper followed my editorial comments. The authors indicate that many details are hidden. I feel that it is not critical that we have to replicate each component of Skype; we have to focus our attention in addressing the problem on hand: how do we facilitate consumers to easily setup a mechanism so that they communicate with others, with out the aid of service providers.
“Any node with a public IP address having sufficient CPU, memory, and network bandwidth is a candidate to become a super node.”
The name to fame for Skype is that it eases the NAT/Firewall traversal problem. This does it with the help of Supernodes. How many of them will be available? As I have said before, either Supernode is the Achilles heel of the architecture or there is no need for them in the first place, meaning there will be no need for Skype.
“Skype uses wideband codecs which allows it to maintain reasonable call quality at an available bandwidth of 32 kb/s… We measured that the Skype codecs allow frequencies between 50-8,000 Hz to pass through.”
Now we know why Skype is not encouraging an ATA solution – traditional phones have only 4 kHz range. So those VoIP systems that are based on ATAs better rethink their requirements.
”The buddy list is local to one machine and is not stored on a central server.”
Probably the API will allow us to store the list in such a way that it can be loaded onto the next computer at login time. Let us not concern about finding such a storage space. What is gmail for anyway.
”SC cannot prevent itself from becoming a super node.”
This must be a new development. Discussion forum suggested the opposite. Given the processing and bandwidth load, I suspect that the wider public will find an artificial way to disqualify themselves, like inserting a NAT/Firewall.
“It thus appears from the reverse lookup that the login server is hosted by an ISP based in Denmark.”
The CEO coyly stated in an interview that the location is hidden in a secret spot. Assuming that this is indeed true, then the Denmark server must be a misleading proxy with the real login server hidden behind this machine.
“The caller SC established a TCP connection with the callee SC. Signaling information was exchanged over TCP.”
Harbinger of doom for VoIP service providers: If the end-points can locate themselves, there is no need for Skype or any other service provider. I would think real believers of intelligent at the end will be working to address this issue, rather than spending energy in dumping on PSTN or extolling the virtues of Skype.
“The caller sent signaling information over TCP to an online Skype node which forwarded it to callee over TCP. This online node also routed voice packets from caller to callee over UDP and vice versa… The negative side is that there will be a lot of traffic flowing across this node.”
Many other traversal techniques use optimization techniques to ease the demands on “supernodes” It is disappointing that Skype does not use such techniques.
“Thus, the total uplink and downlink bandwidth used for voice traffic is 5 kilobytes/s.”
I think this is just the bandwidth consumed by the codec. One has to add the transport overhead to compute the consumed bandwidth.
"We think that three factors are responsible for its increasing popularity. First, it provides better voice quality than MSN and Yahoo IM clients; second, it can work almost seamlessly behind NATs and firewalls; and third, it is extremely easy to install and use."
It is worth pointing out that it is not difficult to replicate these three characteristics using open technologies.
Lifetime for cheap: By this time I am sure that you have heard about a company called RNKVoIP is offering a lifetime subscription for $999. You also must have read why many bloggers are skeptical of this offering. I do not have anything more to add except to say that some must have heard, “Rise of a network of Stupids” instead of “Rise of the Stupid network”. Somebody overheard Oliver Stone saying that this is a conspiracy hatched by the incumbents to discredit the VoIP industry.
How to count: A report claims that Yahoo!BB has the largest number of subscribers for their VoIP service. That may be true, but is it significant and is it fair to compare to Vonage (et. al.) subscription level? I thought a subscription to Yahoo!BB includes access to VoIP service. The subscriber has not made a conscious decision to opt for this service. A Vonage subscriber on the other hand has agreed to pay a monthly fee. So it would be helpful if the usage level of an average Yahoo!BB subscriber is made available.
PhoneBoy and Leonardo Faoro have described a service from a company called Xcelis. In short the service allows you to make free long distance call using your cell phone, by routing the call through their “cell phone” and the usual VoIP architecture. Their customers do not consume air minutes because of “mobile to mobile” calls and they charge $10 per month to cover their expenses. It is a pity that the industry has been reduced to scavenging for ARPU with no inherent innovation. It is worse because no attention has been paid to sustainability of the service. Will the cell providers be complacent and not do anything to prevent such parasitic services? The following is an excerpt from Verizon Wireless Service Terms and Agreements: “National IN Calling is not available to customers whose wireless exchange restricts the delivery of Caller ID or with fixed wireless devices with usage substantially from a single cell site.” Note that, their cell phones will be used from a single cell site, thereby not be eligible for IN calling.
Added clarification: Verizon Wireless calls mobile-to-mobile service to be "IN calling". Unfortunately this terminology might mislead one to read that the discussion is referring inbound calls. But I am talking about a call originated by a VZW customer that is being patched by Xcelis and then forwarded to the intended phone over a VoIP network. Xcelis will be used from a single cell, thereby violating the T&C of "IN calling"; so the call to Xcelis equipment will not be considered mobile-to-mobile thereby incurring airtime.
Om Malik has organized a group blog called Broadband Daily. The articles will span multiple technologies and services that make up “Broadband”. Already I read articles from some of the currently identified contributors. It will be rewarding to know others’ thoughts. Om has kindly invited me to join the group, which I will do as I have done previously. Since I suspect that all my readers are also readers of Om, I will not cross post those submissions here.
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