August 30, 2005

Another Calamity

Eight months back when calamity hit my home country my first reaction was to lament at the lack of warning system. Now my adopted land is hit with equally severe event; but we had sufficient early warning. Still, it seems inn many ways nature is more powerful.We all have to contribute as much as possible to any and all organizations that are in a position to help those affected.

This is one of the few times I could realte to what Siddhartha felt when he observed those fabled human suffering that set him on his path to his enlightenment. As one person commented on a TV program, "we shall endure." Amen!

Posted by aswath at 10:28 PM | Comments (2)

August 26, 2005

VoIP and E911: Why not “Nagging Connection"?

This morning, FCC updated its “guidance to providers of interconnected voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service concerning enforcement of the subscriber affirmative acknowledgement requirement set forth in the Commission’s VoIP Enhanced 911 (E911) rules”. Previously they had required 100% compliance from subscribers on their understanding the limitations of VoIP service regarding E911 service. The service providers were required to cut off service to those who have not complied by August 29. Today they extended the deadline to September 30, 2005.

Some service providers have suggested that they will institute “soft” or “warm” disconnect. Apparently, under this scheme, all outgoing calls, except to 911, will either be blocked or will be diverted to the customer service center. Providers like Teliphone and Broadview Networks have indicated that they will institute this to non-compliers as of September 28, 2005.

I suggest an alternative scheme: starting immediately, non compliers should hear an announcement before every call – both incoming and outgoing. Specifically, after the customer has finished dialing, an announcement is played before call setup progresses further. Similary, when the customer answers an incoming call, an announcement is played before the caller is connected to the call. We all know that nagging is effective many a times.


Posted by aswath at 05:12 PM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2005

Google Talk(s), But What Does it Say?

Late Tuesday night, Google introduced a new application called Google Talk. It is a small client that uses a person’s Gmail id for authentication and allows email, IM or voice communication with other “buddies”. Granted that this is a Beta version; but it is far from a full featured product. Indeed, it looks like it has been rushed out for other corporate reasons. This is the focus of this note.

Since other bloggers have sufficiently described this application, a quick summary will suffice. A new user can quickly import the contact list from the Gmail account. It is a simple process to invite a contact to join the buddy list. Till that person accepts the invitation, only email contact is allowed. If a buddy is available then one can either talk to or IM that person, by clicking on that person’s name. Here GT is different from other IM systems that it has been compared to. In other IM systems, you will be presented with a text chat window. (If you want to talk, then you click the “Call” button.) But in GT, you are presented with a text chat window, but the buddy is audibly alerted. In my opinion this is a fundamental difference – in GT the primary means of communication is voice chat.

He text chat feature lacks many of the standard features. Yes you can archive a text chat session. But it is not clear how to retrieve the archive. If I am doing it correctly, then the archive does not maintain the timestamp. This is obviously an oversight on the part of company whose objective is to organize information. I don’t think there is a way to search the archive either. Given that GT anticipates that talking will be the primary mode of communication, there is no way to archive a talk session.

The current version is strictly for two person communication – no multi-party text or talk sessions.

Given the tight integration with Gmail, it is surprising that they didn’t include voice mail capability. I was specifically looking for a way to record a voice snippet using GT and send it as an email attachment to the recipient.

If I use it a bit more, I am sure I will be able to add more. All these points can be easily rectified and I am sure Google will do just that. But the question is why Google released such an early stage product. I am not suggesting that it should have been full featured. I am saying that the features that they decided to include are not fully developed and are not comparable to the ones already available.

My theory is that Google wanted to squash the “Skype rumor”, lest it adversely affect their upcoming supplementary stock offering.

Let me also speculate the real business plan behind GT. Once users become comfortable wearing a headset and talking over them, the ads can not only be linked to web pages but also to GT, thereby more effectively realize the objectives of thinkingVoice.


Posted by aswath at 02:57 AM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2005


For more than two years now I couldn't use my car radio because I have misplaced the anti-theft code. The other day I saw an ad for a MP3 car radio that has an auxiliary USB port. My idea is that I can use this to listen to podcasts during the commute. As a step further, I could scan most of my blogroll if I could convert them to MP3. A quick look suggests that TextAloud is a good choice to convert text to MP3. Actually, I am planning to add AT&T Natural Voice speech engine if the whole experiment works out. Interestingly, AT&T license is a stiff one not affordable by an individual. So I can use it only for personal use. I can convert my entries as well, but with a not-so-good speech engine. On an experimental basis, I will make my entries available in MP3 format. I call them Tcast, because it is a TTS output. Let me know what you think of it.

By the way, installing the new radio was an experience by itself. Of course I got it professionally installed. It took good time to do the job even for them. I wish the radios are designed in such a manner that is one has to just pop the old one and slide the new one. The industry just has to define a proper pin-out interface.


Posted by aswath at 11:48 PM | Comments (0)

August 13, 2005

P2P, SIP and Security

For the past couple of days, Erik has posted discussions on SIP based P2P and security issues. These discussions are in audio format and are really interviews with Cullen Jennings, Rohan Mahy and Erik’s interview to Voxilla. The following is a quick summary and my thoughts. But it is different to summarize an audio portion compare to a written one – it is easier to go back to a written page; it is easier to search for a segment. This is to suggest that I might not have fully got the points made by the speakers. If you have not already heard these pieces, you may do well to give a listen.

Erik and Cullen talk about an ad-hoc meeting of people interested in SIP based P2P system at the recent IETF meeting. It really looks like this meeting was a big “tent” because it included people who are interested in this technology for different applications. Cullen specifically describes three groups:

  1. The first group is interested in establishing a communication system in a “mesh” or “ad-hoc” network environment. This technology is being evaluated by defense departments and emergency response organizations. The idea is that each individual will have a wireless device that is capable of communicating with other devices in the vicinity. These devices will use P2P mechanism. Given the critical nature, it is imperative that there be an industry standard. If you recall during 9/11, two incompatible radio systems further imperiled the heros of the first responders in New York city. So I hope companies like Motorola participate in this standards process and the emergency organizations insist on industry wide standards compliance.
  2. The second group is interested in storing data in a distributed manner without requiring central servers. But Cullen points out that the data need to be stored in multiple places, but it is not clear how much redundancy is sufficient. He says this is an open question. I, on he other hand, feel that no number will be enough. Usually people come up with a number based on the assumption that the probability that one storage device will not be available is independent of the status of others. But this assumption will not be valid. It is interesting to note that Skype voice mail is not stored in a centralized server and does not use a P2P scheme.
  3. The third group is bent upon recreating Skype but using an open and standard mechanism. It looks like a response born out of bravado or envy. After all Skype claimed derisively that SIP is not upto the task of P2P and so somebody has to show it. But what is being missed by this group is that there are no good reasons for creating a P2P communications system. Take a look at the comment posted by David Barrett.There is a material advantage in Skype being a closed system. It is not apparent that owners of supernodes may be able to discern the calling patterns of other users. But it is not clear how an open system based on SIP can provide similar protection.

Posted by aswath at 02:42 PM | Comments (0)

August 08, 2005

Response to VoIP Dude

This is really a reply to the comments VoIP Dude made regarding my previous entry.

I most vehemently disagree with his claim that “PG idea” would be PhoneGnome proprietary. Depending upon what you mean by PhoneGnome idea, I disagree with your other comment as well.

The “PG idea” is that it is beneficial for consumers to use both the PSTN line and VoIP connectivity, where both the interfaces have the “same” identity. I have earlier expanded on this point. I am not a legal scholar, but I just don’t see how this can be proprietary.

PhoneGnome has taken this step one further and focuses on that segment of users who would like to use the standard phone only. It is true that this would require a hardware based solution. But if an user is willing to use a computer based solution, one could easily develop a software based solution. After all most of the computers have a modem, which could be used for PSTN calls. The documents mentioned in the earlier post suggest the required logic.

I never suggested that PhoneGnome and Skype will be open. On the contrary.

Posted by aswath at 08:44 PM | Comments (4)

PhoneGnome, ENUM, Secret Sauce and a New Revenue Source

Martin Geddes comments on the recent IETF meeting on ENUM and questions the desirability of carrier ENUM. In that post he expresses his desire to enter a PSTN number in the Skype client, which will in turn setup a Skype call if that PSTN subscriber is also a Skype user. In this context he states how he thinks PhoneGnome does the initial authentication. His idea is close to what I had stated previously. Either he has read what I previously wrote and don’t think it is that important to reference it or he thought of this independently. In either case, his action supports my claim that this scheme is known or can be developed by people “well versed in this art”. If you think I need to give much stronger evidence, take a look at slide number 13 of a presentation given to Department of State on Feb 12, 2001. So I am still mystified about the specific claims. I hope USPTO posts the application soon enough.

Even though the database maintained by PhoneGnome looks like ENUM and both could use the same authentication and registration procedure, in my thinking PhoneGnome does not yet offer ENUM service. For example when a user dials in a PhoneGnome subscriber’s phone number, the call will be delivered on the PSTN interface of the PhoneGnome box. For that matter, even Vonage, Packet8 et al will do the same thing.

Nothing prevents other VoIP service providers also give out customer id based on their PSTN number. So until and unless VoIP service providers form a consortium and settle on a “sub Carrier ENUM”, a call from any VoIP provider will end up on the PSTN interface. Some time back submitted an application for TLD for this purpose (in my interpretation). But it got rejected. I do not know what their followup plans are; but this can be done with out the need of a TLD. I hope they will make it happen.

In the meantime, here is an additional source of revenue for PhoneGnome and its clones (I do hope, clones spring up quickly; that is when it will become a consumer item). They could strike partnership deals with Interexchange carriers to terminate calls on the IP interface of the PG box (it is the generic box; hence the name change) at a lower rate than the incumbents charge. Keep in mind that one makes money while terminating a call, not just when calls are originated. In some respects this is a better deal because the business arrangements are only with a limited number of enterprises and there is no need to maintain records of individual calls; just gross count is sufficient.

Posted by aswath at 11:24 AM | Comments (2)

August 05, 2005

A New VoIP Service

A week back somebody tagged an old news item in The news item talks about a service offered by a company called thinkingVoice. A customer of thinkingVoice will place a specially scripted link in its web page. When a visitor clicks on the link, thinkingVoice serves a specialized form that can be filled by the visitor. The form collects the phone number at which the visitor can be reached and the collected information is delivered to the customer. In short, the idea is thinkingVoice connects a visitor to a human operator. According to thinkingVoice, this service provides personalized service, creates repeat customers, inspires buyer confidence, without the need for costly toll-free numbers and works with any phone.

After a free trial period, there is a monthly service charge of $7 and $0.15 per minute. This fee is more than double what I pay to AT&T as a consumer ($0.07 per minute). On top of this, the visitor can select a privacy option under which thinkingVoice will not deliver the phone number of the visitor. I don’t think this is possible for normal toll-free calls. But the biggest drawback of this scheme is that it requires the visitor to fill out the pop-up form with the phone number. I would imagine the user might as well punch in the number on the phone.

Now VoIP service providers (especially PhoneGnome and other “fixed location” providers) can offer a similar service at a much better price and that does not require the visitor to fill-out a pop-up form. This can be done very simply, but at this time I have to leave out the details for obvious reasons. (Hey there has to be a business model for this blog at some point.) Since this call is a normal “Out” call, it needs to be charged accordingly, which will be comparable to the favorable toll-free calls. Or, following the model of thinkingVoice, a premium can be charged. Then probably Mr. Cuban may even be interested in investing in the service provider.

Posted by aswath at 01:44 AM | Comments (0)

August 01, 2005

Economics of Toll Free Service

My understanding of the technical aspects of telephony may be questionable, but I will freely admit that I don’t fully understand the financial aspects of this industry. Just as the airline industry seem to defy some of the Euclidian axioms, the economics of the telephone industry many a time escapes logic. That was my reaction when I read the press release from Skype that it has started to offer access to toll free numbers in some countries for their SkypeOut subscribers. They are even extending this service to basic Skype users as well.

I thought that even though the call is toll free from the caller’s point of view, the carrier still receives a toll for the call, from the organization that is receiving the call. So what Skype has done is that it has established itself as a CLEC so to speak when it delivers these toll free calls. In other words, as it expands its service repertoire, it has added a new revenue stream. At least that is what I think. Andy while commenting on this service and its lack of sophistication does not comment on this point. So probably I am wrong.

I also think it might create a potential problem for Skype. In PSTN, potential for fraud can be managed. After all, the carrier has good control over the originators of toll free calls and subscribers to toll free calls can easily restrict the calls to a specific geographical area. It is not clear to me how Skype can meet these two requirements.

In a recent entry, Martin observes that Skype’s wide-band codec can improve customer experience. But alas, at least in this case, Skype has taken the easy road of handing the call over to PSTN using one of the standard codecs with the associated problems.

By the way, have you noticed that in many respects Skype is following the strategies of Free World dialup – first free call days and now access to toll free service. I wonder whether Jeff has shared his game book with his new found protégé.

Posted by aswath at 01:15 AM | Comments (10)

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