Not long ago, there were proprietary little VoIP gateway boxes targeted
at consumers that allowed you to make point-to-point calls between them
across the Internet. These boxes were great little gadgets, especially for
individuals with a loved one or friend that lived far away, which often
resulted in high monthly phone charges. By placing one of these units on
each end, such as one from Aplio (www.aplio.com)
or Innomedia (www.innomedia.com), one
could save on long-distance charges. Calling from unit-to-unit was often
free and only when you hopped off to the PSTN did you actually have to pay a
discounted per minute rate. The problem with these boxes was that they were
proprietary; for example, you couldnt call from an Aplio unit to an
Innomedia unit. Worse, they didnt have a real phone number associated
with them just an IP address, which meant you couldnt call the unit
from a PSTN line. Essentially, these SOHO VoIP gateways were a one-way
street; you could call out, but no one could call in after all, what
phone number would they dial?
Several of these SOHO VoIP gateways added H.323 support in their future
releases, but they still didnt have a phone number mapped to the units.
Then came Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) the perfect protocol to
enable service providers to provide not just voice services over IP, but
also enhanced services, including unified communications and even the
ability to assign a real phone number to SIP-based products.
One interesting company leveraging the power of SIP to provide unified
communications across the Internet is Webley (www.webley.com).
Webleys Media Switching Platform (MSP) is an open architecture
software-based platform that enables carriers to quickly offer new services,
such as voice mail, speech-recognition virtual assistant, and more. In
addition to SIP, it supports many interface protocols, such as RTP, ISDN,
SNMP, POP3, WAP, IMAP4, SMTP, XML, LDAP, and VPIM.
WorldCom and Webley
Webley claims that their MSP platform can be scaled to support millions of
users. The fact that WorldCom has chosen Webley to offer SIP-based voice
services certainly supports this claim. The carrier is deploying SIP voice
mail servers from Webley on its vBNS+ network, where all IP Communications,
call signaling, and handoffs to the PSTN take place. Worldcoms product,
called IP Communications, negates the need for a $50,000+ CPE-based PBX. All
that is required are SIP-based endpoints connected to the LAN at the
customer premises, such as Ciscos 7960, Pingtels xpressa, or Siemens
omniPoint 100. Since SIP phones are often a bit pricey, in theory you can
use Mediatrixs four-port SIP-to-analog gateway and use regular analog
phones. In addition you can probably use a SIP-based soft-phone client such
as Microsofts MSN Messenger.
Using the SIP protocol, Centrex features are enabled across IP, hence the
term IP-Centrex. Adding additional lines, voicemail features, turning on
call forwarding, etc. can all be done simply via a Web browser. Barry Zipp,
senior director of Enhanced Voice Services at WorldCom was quoted as saying,
To support native SIP you have to replicate and enhance the functions
that are resident in a PBX or Centrex environment, which is what WorldCom is
doing, he says. Business users can expect features such as call
forwarding, call transfer and four-digit dialing.
In any event, I had Webley send me a beta account to test their platform.
I was provided with the account information to access the Web interface and
the settings to put in the SIP-based MSN Messenger client. They assigned me
a toll-free number, which when dialed has the capability of call blasting
me at five possible endpoints. These endpoints can be any traditional phone,
such as a cell phone, office phone, etc.; but the real beauty of Webley is
that it supports SIP endpoints. Thus, all I had to do is enter my SIP
address sip:email@example.com:5080 as one of my possible
endpoints and Webley would attempt to reach me on any SIP client I am
currently using. The endpoints are simply entered via a Web browser to a
password-protected Web site.
Webley includes call transfer rules that are based on caller ID and current
date and time. Similarly, a specific voice mail greeting can be played to
callers based on caller ID and current date and time. Webley also features a
natural speech-recognition-driven virtual assistant. Other features include
a unified messaging mailbox for voice mail, faxes, and e-mail,
voice-activated dialing, follow-me service via one number, conference
calling, and the capability to allow users to listen to e-mail over the
phone. Via a personal Web page, customers can upload and synchronize PIM
address books, retrieve/forward messages and set up conference calls.
Since MSN Messenger is free and I dont need to lug any hardware (i.e.,
a SIP hard phone) around, I can log on to Webleys SIP registrar using MSN
Messenger and receive incoming calls to my toll-free number. Very cool! In
fact, by using MSN Messenger in conjunction with Webley, I am able to
receive and make calls wherever I am on my office PC, my home PC, in a
hotel using a laptop, etc.
Make The Call
When I tested it, I made a test call to my toll-free number, and it asked me
if I wanted to find him or take a message. After selecting find
him it prompted me to say my name, which it recorded. Next, my cell phone
and office phone simultaneously rang. In addition, on my PC I received a MSN
Messenger instant message popup saying firstname.lastname@example.org would
live to have a video and voice conversation with you. Do you want to accept
or decline? If I answered the call on a PSTN line, it plays back the
recorded screened name and I can then accept the call simply by saying Ill
take the call or state Send to voice mail.
Additionally, depending on where I answered and accepted the call (cell
phone, office phone, or MSN Messenger), I am instantly connected to the
caller while the other legs of the call are disconnected. Obviously,
the coolest way of accepting the call was via MSN Messenger, which I tested,
and it performed flawlessly.
Quality and Latency
The voice quality was some of the best Ive heard on a VoIP connection and
the latency was exactly the same as a cell phone. I know because I made a
call from my cell phone to my toll-free number, which routed the call to MSN
Messenger and I answered it with my PCs USB phone. I then held my cell
phone to my left ear and a USB phone to my right ear. I spoke some test
words into both receivers simultaneously and I heard it played back at the
exact same moment on both receivers. What this means is that the Webley VoIP
service has just as good latency as a cell phone network, which is pretty
impressive (see sidebar).
SIP & Telecommuting
According to the International Telework Association and Council, last year,
mobile workers numbered 28 million in the U.S., 17 percent more than a year
earlier. With the economic slowdown businesses are turning to telecommuting
because of the cost savings. By utilizing SIP, businesses can offer their
employees an inexpensive means of working from home while still retaining
the full functionality of the corporate PBX.
While I see Internet telephony products all the time, I was still awed by
Webleys coolness factor. I firmly believe that before long we will
all want the ability to receive phone calls wherever we are. SIP is the
enabling technology to that end. It wont be long before the carriers
support routing all your phone numbers (home, office, cell phone, etc.) to a
SIP-based client that you are currently logged onto. Using presence
technology that is inherent in SIP, the carriers will know exactly where to
route your calls at anytime or according to scheduling rules that you
define. Perhaps these advanced features and services will be just what the
doctor ordered to help the telecom sector break out of its slump.
Tom Keating is CTO of Technology Marketing Corporation, and the
executive technology editor of TMC Labs. He can be reached at Tom Keating .
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