Until a couple of months ago, I had been pretty much ignoring the increasing number of broadband telephony products. Then a press notice from Vonage inviting me to sample a new offering called V-phone caught my eye, mainly because it stated that the product was ideal for “customers surfing the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot.” This got me thinking that perhaps there is a small business road warrior market niche where not-quite-carrier-grade service could be useful. The remainder of this column will (as Paul Harvey likes to say) give you the rest of the story of my excursion into the land of broadband telephony. Enticement The Vonage press release was enticing. It noted that Vonage has partnered with Ubistar and SJ Labs to collaboratively develop its new product, a portable and multifunctional universal serial bus (USB) device called the V-phone, which looks like a memory stick and includes a 2.5 mm stereo earpiece microphone All the interface software necessary to make PC-to-PC or PC-to-landline calls comes pre-loaded on the V-Phone and updates itself on the device’s 256 MB flash drive. Like other Vonage offerings, it includes voice mail and “full featured calling plans.” They said it was “ a virtual mobile office with the ability to make phone calls from PCs with high speed Internet access anywhere in the world.” That’s pretty cool, and heaven knows I can use a virtual mobile office that fits into a memory stick, so I set up a V-Phone account. Since these folks were hawking communications from Wi-Fi hot spots, I figured my first trial could be from my laptop via a wireless connection to my cable modem—a pretty private hot spot, but a good start for a technical test. My laptop is equipped with a handy utility program called DU Meter that measures download and upload speeds (available on the Internet from DUmeter). I used this as a basic yardstick to see how much bandwidth I was using. My ear was the other sophisticated measuring device—not quite as good as a mean opinion score (MOS), but it works in a pinch. Testing The first call was to a local number, with no other Internet activity. Aside from occasional very short breaks in the conversation, my ear told me the call quality was acceptable. No echo, no noticeable delays. Bandwidth consumption was in the 80 kbps range, which tells me that, given some overhead for my wireless link, the V-Phone was probably using a G.711 codec or a close cousin. So far, so good. My next call was a repeat, but this time, I simultaneously browsed the Internet. Still no echo, no noticeable delays. I did notice some additional breaks in the conversation, but nothing annoying enough to stop using the service. Then I tried a local call to a mobile phone, without other Internet activity. Still no echo or noticeable delays, but more breakup in the conversation, particularly in the downstream path to me. For the benefit of doubt, let’s say this was from the cellular connection. Finally, I tried a long-distance call to Florida. Again, no echo nor noticeable delay, but more breaks in the conversation. I figure this would be annoying, but tolerable if the customer realized substantially lower call costs. So far, it was beginning to look like there really might be some competition to cable telephony, especially in cost-cutting market segments—but what about the road warrior, that user of the real Wi-Fi hotspot? For this test drive, I took the V-Phone on a trip to the Hyatt hotel in Cambridge, MA, and made a call home to Illinois at 10 p.m. The result was so abysmal, I could almost hear the packets dropping onto the floor. I tried to make a call twice, and each time, almost every word in the conversation was clipped. Just for the benefit of doubt, I tried again the next day, same time—same result. So much for road warrior use, unless you are traveling backroads and stay in two-room bed-and-breakfast accommodations. What it means Of course, this V-Phone experience just illustrates what we’ve been saying all along. Without guaranteed quality of service (QoS) that prioritizes voice traffic, quality is going to rapidly degrade in high traffic scenarios. My daytime calls in my office worked reasonably well because there is (for now) surplus bandwidth in the path through my office wireless network and my access network (thanks, Comcast!), as well as in the inter-router paths used to complete my calls to a public switched telephone network (PSTN) gateway. On the other hand, in the hotel at 10 p.m., everyone is browsing or checking email. In a hundred-room hotel with wireless Internet access, voice packets don’t stand a chance. Skype, too Just so it doesn’t appear I’m picking on Vonage, I also tried Skype. Skype is gaining in popularity as embedded software on personal assistant devices, such as the recently announced Sony mylo personal communicator. Sony’s press release says the idea behind mylo is to encourage users to “get up and away from their desks and roam available wireless networks.” This do-all device also plays MPEG-4 personal videos and MP3 files, but I digress. For simple telephony, it’s another device that uses an 802.11b network to access the Internet, and Skype is its application software for telephony. The marketing pitch for Skype is free calls to anywhere in the world, as long as you call Skype to Skype, and for the remainder of 2006, free calls from Skype to U.S. landline and mobile phone numbers. Since I figured my publisher wouldn’t pop for the $399 mylo, I put Skype on my office laptop, again connected to the Internet via a wireless link to my cable modem, and made a local call. My meter showed 32 kbps as the data rate, so we’re already doing some compression. On my side, the voice quality seemed OK, but it was simplex transmission—only one of us could talk at a time. My called party, on the other hand, had a serious problem with echo. For fun, I also tried a call to a local mobile phone. No echo, but still simplex. I didn’t try a connection in a hotel during a high traffic period, but given that the quality was worse than Vonage on my office network, it’s a pretty good assumption that the result at the hotel will be no better than the V-Phone. So you can roam, but just make sure you don’t roam too far from your home network! Alas … Well, it was a nice idea—cheap, publicly available Internet phone service for the road warrior. Even for the large business employee with a virtual private network (VPN) through a corporate managed internet, QoS in the hotel access network can still be an issue. The maxim holds for home, office, or the road—you get what you pay for. Justin J. Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink and telephony editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at [email protected].