Bellheads versus Netheads

As I mentioned last week, I've been using the Vonage IP phone over my DSL circuit. It's working nicely so far. The quality falls somewhere between hardwired POTS and cellphone, for the most part, though it does vary with the Internet weather. During a long interview the other day (52 minutes to Vancouver, BC, from Keene, NH, for $2.62), there were some really bad patches. As it happened, I was recording the interview for InfoWorld, and because of those rough spots I've decided to transcribe parts of it myself rather than send the recording to InfoWorld's transcriptionist. But at other times, I've forgotten that I'm talking over IP rather than POTS, until I wander by my DSL router and see all the lights blinking like crazy.

The system is so easy to use that the technically-inclined are likely to trip themselves up trying to find ways to make it harder. I assumed, for example, that I'd need to forward a port through my NAT to be able to accept inbound calls. Not so. Evidently it originates and then holds open a connection. The only requirement is that your DSL router offer DHCP service. You plug in the Cisco ATA 186, push its single button, pick up your phone handset, and type 80#. A voice speaks the IP address that was acquired, and then you get a dial tone.

The Web-based configuration service enables you to do some interesting things. If you tell it to handle your voicemail, the messages spool up at the website, where you can randomly select them for playback. What with buffering delays and audio file-format issues, though, this feature so far hasn't turned out to be as useful as I had imagined.

You can also forward calls to another number, and doing that in a self-serve manner is a real eye-opener. I was expecting a call over the weekend, then had to go out for a few hours, so I forwarded the Vonage to my cellphone, with the Vonage's answering service as a backup. Slick.

Web acccess to call logs is also extremely nice. The data isn't delivered as XML, but easily could be, and I can think of lots of useful things to do with it.

I spoke with the Vonage folks today about the prospects for getting direct access to the digitized voice or the SIP signalling. It's possible in theory, but in practice the packet headers are encrypted (a nice security precaution), and they haven't documented how to reproduce the decryption and packet assembly that currently happens inside the ATA 186. Right now, they're focused on building out a basic voice service. But they absolutely agree that lots of useful integration can, and eventually will, be done.

Assuming nothing happens to stop it, of course. Denton, Menard & Isenberg lay it out nicely:

IP Telephony (The Bellhead Vision of Telephony)

Internet Telephony (The Nethead View of Telephony)

[ Bellheads versus Netheads]

I'm becoming intensely curious about how this is going to play out.

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