February 07, 2011

It is we who failed to let VoIP flourish

Yesterday @desarls mentioned about a blog post titled "How the FCC Killed VoIP" by Alex Goldman. This post is a rebuttal where I argue that during the past decade the VoIP industry acted less a revolutionary segment (though it talked all the right talk) and aped the incumbents (though it derided them whenever it could).

I hope you read Alex’s post, but let me summarize the post with this representative statement he makes there: “VoIP has been fenced in by the FCC so that it offers no more than telephone, a moved [sic] that was intended to protect cellular and wireline phone companies.” He goes on to detail how E911 order, Universal Service Fee and CALEA requirements placed an enormous burden on VoIP service providers, especially smaller ones. He says that these regulations have constricted VoIP to be replacement of wireline phone service of the previous century. But he fails to note that these regulations are only for “interconnected” services. Nobody is forced to be an interconnected service provider. Skype has simply decoupled “In” and “Out” services and seems to have successfully avoided the need to comply to these regulations. Why can’t other providers do the same.

More importantly, these providers by issuing an ATA and asking their customers to connect a “standard telephone”, I contend that it is the service providers who are asking their customers to view themselves as a replacement service. It is the service providers who reinforce this further by issuing just phone numbers. Let us compare how email providers rolled out the service a couple of decades back. At that time, email advocates ridiculed postal service, just like VoIP advocates deride the incumbents. But they didn’t use postal address as email address; they didn’t suggest that they will transcribe written letters to email format, just because that is what the customers are used to. They took the bold step of requiring necessary modifications to user experience and user interface so as not to stifle the services the technology can offer. To be sure, the adoption may have been was slow, but once it is adopted, email service provided a totally, radically different service.

So what features and services that VoIP providers could have offered, FCC regulations or not?
Since VoIP out-of-band signalling mechanism, many services that Plain Old Telephone Service can not hope to offer. A caller can find out called user’s availability in a less intrusive manner rather than asking in person. But standard telephone/ATA combination does not allow for this. SIP, the predominant protocol used by VoIP providers allow for conveying th subject of the call, just like email does. But alas, there is no way to convey that to a telephone/ATA end point. And I could continue for some length. None of the FCC regulations force VoIP providers not to offer any of these services/features. It may be convenient or fashionable to rally the base by faulting the incumbents or FCC, but the reality is that VoIP industry could offer many new, exciting features and it is solely our fault that we haven’t even made an attempt to get market reaction on these services and features.

Posted by aswath at 03:49 PM | Comments (0)

Extending Speak2Tweet

Recently two Googlers came up with a service that lets people call a phone number and leave a message, then posts a link to the message to Twitter. The service called Speak2Tweet that was developed over a weekend allowed people to communicate and coordinate protest against the Egyptian government which cut off Internet and cellphone service. Google had setup phone numbers in three different countries. A couple of days later, a similar service with access numbers in multiple countries was made available. (Unfortunately, I am not able to locate a link to this service.) A third variation of this service with human assisted translation and transcription was also introduced.

As commendable as these efforts are there are some fundamental problems that need to be addressed if this service concept sees wider adoption. A story that appeared in USA Today describes two of them:

  1. There is no way to calibrate whether the caller is conveying valid information or not. Indeed Vodafone subsequently stated that the government used emergency powers to send mass SMS messages, but with out identifying the sender. So it is conceivable the government can use its supporters to call in and provide misleading information.
  2. Since this service concept is new, many potential callers did not know the existence of such a service and organizers didn’t have a way to disseminate the access numbers.

So recognizing that the service concept is useful and applicable in other situations - both political and apolitical - it will be useful to develop a more general, scalable version of this service. That is the objective of this post.

In abstraction, the idea of the service is to record a caller’s voice and post a link (with translation and transcription) to Twitter where the recorded message can be played. Many of us have voicemail that can of course record callers’ voice. Since our phone numbers act as access numbers, there is no need to disseminate them. The owners of voice mail account can act as translators and transcribers. So the only thing that needs to be developed is for the callers to instruct the voice mail system that the message must be sent out as a tweet under the voice mail owner’s name, with owner specified tag. Since the tweets will be under the owner’s name and normally the owner’s friends will be using this service, the credibility of the tweets could be associated with the owner.

A possible use case scenario is the following: I administer my voice mail account to prompt the callers to enter a specified digit if they want the message to be tweeted with a specified hashtag. Then the caller enters the specific digit and the system will be ready to record the message. After the caller completes the message the voice mail system can generate a tweet, just as Speak2Tweet does. If necessary I can hear the message and update the tweet with translation and transcription.

Such a service meets the service objectives of Speak2Tweet and also addresses the identified issues like scalability, authentication and access number dissemination. I hope Google Voice, Skype In, Ribbit Mobile and others consider including this capability as part of their service.

Posted by aswath at 09:36 AM | Comments (2)

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