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May 2004


Tom Keating

VoIP Forums Explosion, Wi-Fi Meets VoIP, & More

BY TOM KEATING


VoIP is hot. It seems like new VoIP products and services are coming out on a daily basis. I�ve always felt that one way to gauge the interest in a particular topic is to view the number of forums on the Internet dedicated to a particular topic, as well as the number of posts and views on that topic. For example, there are literally hundreds of forums dedicate to cars, sports, gadgets, and more that receive lots of Web visitors and they build quite a loyal following. So if forums are a �barometer� for how �hot� a topic is, then VoIP has come quite a long way.

Our Web site originally had an internally developed forums site that while functional, sure wasn�t pretty or easy to use. We had some posts, but nothing spectacular. However, when we installed a third-party forums package from WebWiz, the forums really started to take off, especially the VoIP forums.


In fact, on the main VoIP Forums site, I created a room called �VoIP:Wanted Ads/Classifieds� and was shocked at the sheer number of posts. Interestingly, a lot of the posts are from international visitors looking to barter or exchange VoIP minutes, looking for VoIP termination in certain countries, or selling VoIP hardware. Here is one sample post: �China and Greece termination are now available at much reduced prices with no minimum traffic commitments and per second billing(1/1). We guarantee ASR above 72% to both the destinations and provide technical cover round the clock.� I see yet other posts from forum members asking for per minute rate quotes and I�ve seen several replies, some with some fiercely competitive pricing. I�m in the VoIP industry and yet I see posts in these forums from VoIP players that I never heard of! It just amazed me how many people are looking to barter VoIP minutes online. This of course helps push prices down, which is always a good thing � for the consumer that is.

All I can say is that there are certainly lots of startups wanting a piece of the VoIP action � even more than I expected. My recommendation is that if you are looking to exchange minutes or looking for new customers, then this is the place to be! I also highly recommend checking out the �VoIP: General� forum, which is also pretty popular with lots of posts.

Speaking of recommendations, I have another tip for VoIP users, which I�ll get into in a minute. First, let me state that with the explosion of WiFi hotspots across the country (though in my opinion not exploding fast enough), you can be anywhere with your laptop, connect to a WiFi hotspot and not only surf the Web, you can also receive VoIP calls using a softphone. In fact, Vonage offers such a softphone. As a Vonage user myself, I was tempted to try their softphone, but it�s an extra $9.99/month and comes with 500 minutes which is separate from your existing package. I believe they give you a separate Vonage phone number as well. Personally, I�d rather use my existing Vonage phone number so I only have to give out one number. So while I commend Vonage for adding some cool enhancements and features, I�m not a fan of an additional monthly fee as well as a separate phone number.

Still, I do understand where Vonage is coming from. In theory, if they did offer an unlimited softphone package, a Vonage user can just give their friends access to the softphone client software and make free unlimited calls under a single account. However, with the SIP protocol, it shouldn�t be that difficult for a softphone client to register with Vonage�s servers and logoff any other devices using the same account. Thus, if I were to launch the Vonage softphone client, my Cisco ATA-186 (or soon to be Motorola VT1005v) sitting on my house network will be disconnected so all calls are directed to my laptop and all outbound calls must now originate from the laptop. This way Vonage can not worry about multiple people using the same account simultaneously. So from a technical standpoint, I don�t see why this cannot be done. Of course, the additional $9.99/month per softphone user revenue loss may be the stumbling block. Hmmm, I wonder�

And now, on to my tip. I promised another tip didn�t I? Well, I mentioned earlier the explosion of WiFi hotspots and how it can aid in remote VoIP capabilities. The problem is you never know when you are near a WiFi hotspot. Sure you can strain your eyes by scanning the corners of buildings and the sidewalk for warchalking symbols that indicate a WiFi connection is nearby. But what are the odds of finding one unless you are walking in a major city? You could of course boot-up your laptop and see if a WiFi connection is available, but there�s nothing worse than hoping for a WiFi connection only to be disappointed that there is not.

Well, I was excited to learn about the portable Kensington 802.11 Wireless Network Detector which Kensington claims can actually detect 802.11b/g signals up to 200 feet away. Simply by pressing a single button on the miniature device (2.95�L X 0.39�H X 2.17�W) and Kensington claims you can �instantly� detect a WiFi connection.

Well, I just had to get my hands on one of these units! I did get one of their units � which includes a loop for attaching to your keychain, laptop strap, or what have you � and tested it out. It works as advertised, but I can�t say it �instantly� detects a WiFi connection as their marketing literature claims. I found it to take about 30 seconds to �lock� onto a WiFi signal and give a green light even when standing right next to an 802.11b WiFi Access Point (AP). This is far too long for my liking. I�d like to press the button and within one to three seconds know if a WiFi connection is nearby. I tested it within our corporate offices and when I walked away from the AP into a computer room that only gets low-to-medium signal strength (though WiFi devices still work in here), the Kensington WiFi Network Detector could not successfully detect the WiFi connection. Thus, it would appear it only works well when it sees a strong WiFi signal. For that reason and for the slow �lock on,� I can�t recommend this device as it stands right now. Maybe the next version will be better, but alas for now I will still be forced to boot-up my laptop and pray to the networking gods for a WiFi connection.

Tom Keating is CTO of Technology Marketing Corporation and the executive technology editor of TMC Labs. He can be reached at tkeatingtmcnet.com.

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