Om describes a new service offered by a company called GrandCentral. Previously they had announced a free voice-mail service for homeless. The new service is an extension of this service to the general public with some “premium” call routing features.
First a short description of the service: as part of subscription, the user is given a telephone number; the user can set up rules on how to dispose an incoming call like routing to another number or to forward to the voicemail. If the call is routed to another phone number, then there will be a per minute charge; but terminating the call to the voice mail is free. The basic subscription is free and comes with 100 minutes; additional minutes can be purchased in buckets.
An initial skeptic, Om is now positively impressed with the feature set, like “barge-in”. That is good, but he takes a dig at Rebtel. I take the opposite position. Rebtel smartly makes both the legs of the calls to be incoming. In contrast, GC takes an incoming call and makes it into an outgoing call and extracts money from its users. They could have imitated Rebtel methodology and eliminate the need to subscribe to minutes bundle.
Finally, Om wants us to weigh in the prospects of GC. If GC et. al. do establish the need for such a service, then there will be a consumer device that will do the same thing, but will cost less than 3 months subscription charged by GC.
I am sure you know how Rebtel works: For $1 a week, you get two numbers, one local to your calling area and another local to your designated buddy. When one of you want to call the other, that person will dial their local number allocated by Rebtel; in turn Rebtel will ring the other person's phone number. The called party can hangup within 30 seconds and dial their local access number allocated by Rebtel to be connected to the buddy and they can talk for free as long as they desire. One can easily infer the business model. Some time back Alec had pointed out that it costs about $1 per month to rent a telephone number. Since Rebtel's charge amounts to $4 a month for two phone numbers, there is a clear profit in just allocating the phone numbers. But the beuaty of the scheme is in recognizing that the two legs are incoming calls to Rebtel, unlike Jajah where it makes two outgoing calls. This way, Rebtel not only incurs any charges but can look forward to additional revenue in the form of settlement charges.
But Jeff had suggested after a trip that Rebtel is more than the obvious “mobile arbitrage pay”. He doesn't give any more clues – to be more accurate I didn't pick anything else, till this morning. Andy points to a story in B2.0 that claims that Rebtel is funded to the tune of $20 millon. Of course, they do not require this kind of money to execute the publically announced service. It is for those that are “going on under the hood that meets the eye”, as Jeff puts it. So the question is what could they be. Andy quotes his pal Sanjay jaawar of Bridgeport Networks. So this must be something to do with IMS.
Now for some nitpicks. I don't agree with Andy's characterization that Rebtel is like Mint Telecom. As far as I understand, Mint makes an outgoing call to the far end – it is not made up of two incoming calls. So they have to levy a per minute charge to their customers. Also Rebtel can further simplfy the user experience and extend the service. But I don't think that is what they are focusing on right now.
Om discusses the news item that Cablecos are adding VoIP lines at a brisk speed. Predictably Martin points out that cablecos service is no different than PSTN. Previously I had suggested we have to use a more clearly stated definition for VoIP. Cablecos don't call their service VoIP when it suits them; Earthlink/Covad claims their service is VoIP. So here is my submission:
1. (obvious one) Based on IP; 2. Uses a message oriented signalling; 3. (many will flunk this one) Allows for use of at least one wideband codec; 4. (NCP based cableco service will not qualify this one; even many SIP based systems fail due to greedy business plans) Allows for an "intelligent" end-point (simple litmus test - Call waiting is not a feature; service provider does not determine the "line" is busy).
By the way, Martin's requirement that enabling "3rd party apps and features" is derived from the last one.
This morning there was a news story about Earthlink expanding their “VoIP” service to eight more cities in US. (I guess they haven't heard that PSTN is not a four letter word anymore and that many, especially cable operators don't want to associate their offerings with VoIP label. Never mind that from user experience point of view that this is closer to PSTN than it is to VoIP.) The story goes on to make the following statement: “Because the service is IP-based, customers will be able to take advantage of several enhanced features they wouldn't otherwise get with traditional phone services, such as call prioritization, click-to-dial, number blocking and Web-based voice mail.” This is a puzzling claim on two counts – the UNI interface is the same as PSTN and at least some of the identified services are being offered by one or more PSTN carriers. In my reading the story seems to suggest that PSTN can not offer these services. So I posted a comment on their company blog and I received an unequivocal response, but with a modified claim.
The author of the blog, Dave C claims that “non-IP based phone service doesn't offer”. Mind you, it is not that it can not be offered; it is just that it is not offered. Let us examine the modified claim. Web-based voice mail is of course available with some PSTN carrier: to wit, take a look at Verizon's iobi; PhoneGnome makes this service available to PSTN line as well. As for call blocking, take a look at iobi again. I thought every other company is offering click-to-dial to anybody and everybody; it doesn't even require the PSTN carrier's intervention. I am not sure what is meant by call prioritization. So I have to assume that VoIP is needed.
We are being told that this week VON will be all about applications. So let us keep our ears open and mind as well and pay close attention to see whether these applications can be offered to PSTN users as well or not. Keep in mind that PSTN is here to stay.
If you are planning to attend on VON on Tuesday, Andy suggests that you wear a Hawaiian shirt as a celebratory mark of Jeff's birthday. Of course, those in the know will also know what should be the color of the shirt. :-)
In an interview that appeared in today's New York Times, Citron explains how Vonage will defend itself against its competitors. He is quoted as saying that “the company also wanted to give customers more control over who reached them and where. He envisions a time when subscribers might send certain callers automatically to voice mail — for instance, work calls during a weekend — or put various priorities on personal calls.” Is Vonage going to become simply relevantTM?
In a startling entry, Jeff telegraphs his intention to declare that, “...the PSTN is not ever going away and that the future PSTN is IP based. Deal with it!” This is like Nixon visiting China. Only a person like Jeff can say it and get a following. He also amplifies what he means by that in a subsequent entry. I feel he hasn't taken his thoughts to the logical conclusion.
In my translation, what Jeff is suggesting that PSTN service can be enhanced by a message-oriented signaling system and that we could do that simply and cheaply, if PSTN is supplemented by IP connectivity. He further elaborates that a PSTN carrier provide the IP signaling link and also use VoIP technology to offer enhanced mobility feature. In my opinion he could extend his line of thinking in two directions.
Firstly, following Andy's lead he seem to suggest that soft client is needed for this feature and other so called Voice 2.0 services. Of course this is not necessarily true. Isn't Verizon's iobi service in this direction – it may not forward the call using VoIP; but it is in the right direction.
Secondly, we do not have to depend on the PSTN carrier to offer this capability. This enhancement can be offered by any third party as evidenced by PhoneGnome. They offer this and many other enhanced features not only to VoIP, but also to PSTN line.
Finally, what is being missed in all this analysis is that even a third party like PhoneGnome is not required to realize these features. After all one can deploy intelligent (Isenberg notwithstanding) end-points even in PSTN. If intelligence has moved to the end, then wouldn't this be the ultimate outcome?
Personally, I have been advocating this for almost four years, but I have been dismissed because the general perception is that future belongs to VoIP and so why bother with PSTN. Now that we are told that PSTN is here to stay, I hope I get a more favorable ear.
Update: By the way, this is the reason I disagree with Andy's analysis that AOL TotalTalk is a PSTN replacement service and that AIM PhoneLine is forward looking service. If required, AOL could have easiliy added these features to TotalTalk as well.
Phoneboy talks about his experience with FON. He tells us that not very many people will be looking for his FON, but he thinks that this is an inexpensive way to obtain free Wi-Fi access at other places. As if being caught by what he just said, he adds, “I'll have to see if I "make my money back" so to speak. Fat chance, methinks, but hey, it was only $13 and I can always reflash the unit back to a stock Linksys WRT54GS when FON goes bankrupt.” Ouch.
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