Ready or not, VoIP

Why you’ll soon use two types of Internet telephony

I avoided early VoIP enthusiasm, but that didn’t stop O’Reilly from asking me to write a book about it: “Talk is Cheap,” due out in May. Apparently, the tech publishing house found my objectivity, ahem, appealing. Heck, I don’t even like the regular phone all that much, and no one has my cell phone number. 

Even so, I’m telling you, get ready because Internet telephony (I hate the term VoIP, too) is in your immediate future. I predict you’ll be using two types of Internet telephony before the year is out.

I call the two types “phonecentric” and “computercentric” because I couldn’t find any terminology that explained the differences. Vendors are yelling about "broadband phones" without specifying the technology they use, and there are big differences.

Most hype these days is coming from the phonecentric guys like Vonage. Their strategy is to update the phone network while keeping the phone as the user interface (or client device). You’ll still need a Web browser to manage your account and use some of their many features, though.

In-house right now, I’ve got Vonage service that uses a Linksys Wireless-G (WRT54GP2) router that includes two standard telephone plugs, three Ethernet ports and an 802.11g wireless interface. Small businesses can plug this unit into a broadband modem, plug one or two phones into the router, and dial away just like always.

Part of the appeal of phonecentric systems is the ability to call any phone in the world, and any phone can call you. That's not true with the computercentric products we’ll discuss next week. But the Vonage system (and competitors AT&T CallVantage, Packet8, Net2Phone, Verizon VoiceWing, TimeWarner, VoicePulse and more) upgrade the last-mile connection (replacing copper phone wire with either a DSL line or coax cable) and the long-haul connection (using the public Internet rather than the telephone network). People who like talking and saving money on long-distance charges love phonecentric telephony.

The big guns in the telephone world (SBC will roll its service out later this year) and the cable companies want to power your broadband phones. Some of the technologies used differ (most route your calls over the Internet starting at your router, but a couple of new services grab your call at the central office and switch it to the Internet). But they all provide excellent voice quality with more features than you’ll ever use, all at the same price or less than you’re paying today.

Each also offers business-class service, which doubles the price tag for little difference. If you need only one or two lines, stick with residential service and save.

Speaking of saving, the virtual numbers from the phonecentric vendors give a small business a national appearance. Vonage sells 800 virtual numbers for $5 per month. You can choose any U.S. area code (depending on provider and availability) with your broadband phone, so make customers in your secondary market believe you're a local company. In my area, a Dallas company can get a Ft. Worth area code and look like a Ft. Worth company. Or you can go further afield and have a New York phone number ring in Hollywood, a handy trick for agents and producers.

The Internet changes your phone. Next week I'll show you how the Internet also changes communications and presence, which also happens to include voice. Keep listening.

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