Think about using a Pocket PC to make and take phone calls over a Wi-Fi link.
Dial using a small-screen keypad with a stylus. Click on clearly marked buttons to transfer calls or put them on hold. Now, think about that Pocket PC/IP phone as a remote extension off a corporate PBX.
Not just any PBX, but the new souped-up IP kind of PBX whose extensions, in concert with a browser interface, show you whos available to chat or phone and lets you click to dial out of call logs, buddy lists and contact lists.
Imagine a Web interface that lets you pick up voice mails as e-mails, set call-forwarding options, display caller ID pop-ups with a name, and choose to accept the call or send it to voice mail.
Thats part of the idea behind a new service announced July 29 by Ecuity Inc., a 17-year-old telephone company headquartered in Bellevue, Wash. Branded with a confusing combination of names—Smart Call V-Tone Office PBX—its particular new wrinkle is the Wi-Fi-optimized softphone client that fits on a Pocket PC, called SymPhone. This software client comes from another Bellevue-based company called TeleSym Inc.
I first tried SymPhone software during a noisy IT Expo in San Diego in 2002. Using an HP iPAQ to dial a VOIP call through TeleSyms own IP switch in Bellevue, it connected to another iPAQ across the exhibit hall. The voice quality of that call far outstripped the cellular call we tried immediately afterward.
Symphone, Ecuity vice president of sales Jerry Schwartz explains, was designed from the ground up to operate over Wi-Fi networks, and to compensate for levels of packet loss that would disconnect other wireless calls.
It does not use a typical G.711 codec, which, at 64kbps, is the richest form of voice digitization typically used to drive voice over data lines. Since 64kbps is the uncompressed bandwidth of a digitized but unpacketized PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) call, its fair to assume that SymPhones take on VOIP is a “wideband” technology that captures more frequencies than PSTN. When first shown to me by then-TeleSym product manager Pat Boyle, it could transmit music at fairly high fidelity.
SymPhone is also not to be confused with a Skype download, say, which also will run on an iPAQ.
As well as sounding better than SkypeOut, SymPhone is a much higher-function phone with groupware capability under a hosted-PBX scheme, and, Schwartz tells me, enterprise-grade security components—including session border controllers from Acme Packet—to prevent hacking. (At this writing, too, SkypeOut only gateways out—it cant receive calls from PSTN phones.)
The not-so-new wrinkles to Ecuitys announcement are that its part of a larger hosted PBX offering, with many virtual PBX features common to many of the VOIP service provider startups, such as Nuvio, Packet8 and M5.
Like them, of course, Ecuitys platform gateways calls off the network to any phone in the world, in this case through resale arrangements with Level3 and Global Crossing. A little more off the beaten path, it offers users the ability to click to dial out of their Outlook contact databases; all part of the Web-driven subscriber setup.
The virtual PBX service wouldnt be worth much if it only linked up chatty Pocket PCs. SymPhone also can be run from laptops over both wired and wireless LANs, using microphone and headsets. Equally important, Ecuity can support a mixed Centrex environment in which traditional phones are SIPified through a terminal adapter. Or include sites equipped with IP phones. As a traditional telephone company, it can even combine traditional PSTN Centrex services with V-Tone Office PBX.
As its competitors do, Ecuity maps the SIP address of a SymPhone endpoint to a traditional DID (direct inward dialing) phone number. Subscribers can choose this number from a great range of fashionable and/or convenient area codes, without regard to actual physical location.
Anyone from the outside PSTN world who dials that number hits Ecuitys Coppercom softswitch, equipped with PSTN-to-VOIP gateway. The softswitch then routes the call to the proper VOIP endpoint, complete with Caller ID, call waiting and the usual PBX functions such as call transfer, forward and conferencing.
It also performs the intracompany, PBX-style, four-digit switching between “extensions” of the same Centrex account. Even if one is in Russia and two are in New Jersey—and the rest are anywhere else on a broadband connection.
A Pocket PC/IP phone or a laptop would certainly be a great thing to take abroad, where cellular roaming charges might really rocket.
Like its VOIP competitors, Ecuity also offers a range of single-user, consumer plans, both with Symphone Wi-Fi softphones and the more familiar, one-port terminal adapters for regular analog phones.
They badly need to straighten out their branding. I imagine customers will have a hard time understanding which layer of their multilayered service is meant by V-Tone, which is Smart Call, and how the “V-Tone Office PBX” differs from the “V-Tone Centrex.”
The first, a more sophisticated service, goes for $35 per seat per month and includes a systemwide view of extensions in its Call Manger browser interface, the ability to make certain DID numbers ring multiple extensions simultaneously, and an auto attendant to greet callers from a main office number and forward to four-digit extensions. The V-Tone Centrex, for $25 per seat per month, is a more stripped-down hosted PBX.
Ecuity is very worth watching, as it will make a good working lab for the mobile, multimodal edge of the VOIP frontier, where voice and data flow in two directions during one call. As a regional carrier 17 years old, it may show us where a small ILEC (incumbent local exchange carrier) can fit between the Big Four RBOCs (regional Bell operating companies) and the MCIs, Sprints and AT&Ts, also going after VOIP.
As the company also owns and runs a network of free-to-consumer Wi-Fi hotspots in the Seattle area in local coffee bars and restaurants, it may also show us what there is to gain from Wi-Fi-VOIP synergies.