Discussions of leading-edge voice technology might include a myriad of topics from session initiation protocol (SIP) to WiMAX vs. LTE, to sophisticated telepresence systems. In October, Comcast announced a new product in the telephony space: cordless phones.
Wait, isn’t that more 1980s than 2009?
Apparently, it’s a bit of the glass half-empty as opposed to the glass half-full. While execs at the incumbent telcos fret about the demise of the landline, Comcast has identified the landline as an opportunity.
"Almost 80 percent of households do have a wired telephone connection, and the home phone has much better clarity and call consistency than your mobile," according to Charlie Douglas, a spokesman for Comcast, who added that the average household replaces its home phone every 18 months.
In a mature cable television industry, Comcast is targeting retail consumer electronics, dominated by the Walmarts and BestBuys of the world, as a potential growth business. With consumers replacing their phones so often, "the size of that market is huge, hundreds of millions of dollars a year," said Douglas.
"There haven’t been any real innovations to the home phone since caller ID," he said. "It’s another example of how we’re trying to bring innovation to what we see as a completely ignored technology — the home phone."
Comcast’s cordless phone VoIP offering has been named "HomePoint," and is being offered initially in its Fort Myers, Florida system. Thomson is providing the digital enhanced cordless telecommunications (DECT) device.
DECT is a technology that’s been around in Europe for 15-plus years, with handsets available at retail in the United States for more than five years, according to Brad Sparks, Thomson’s director of business development, North American Cable. In 2005 the FCC allocated spectrum for DECT in its own band, so it has no competing devices.
"It’s really interference free," said Sparks. "It has great range, up to 300 meters as opposed to WiFi, which is expensive and doesn’t have very good range. DECT also has a data channel where we take advantage of Internet related items."
"This is a DECT phone on steroids," said Douglas of Thomson’s advanced cable gateway. The HomePoint gateway has a DOCSIS 2.0/PacketCable 1.5-powered voice modem and 802.11 a/g home router. Additionally, it has two Ethernet ports and one RJ-11 phone line.
Subscribers can purchase up to five Home Point handsets to access voice mail, of course, as well as personal information from their PC, including email and electronic address book. The DECT technology will also handle some Internet Widgit-like applications, including top news stories, sports scores and weather reports.
"We call it Infosnacking," said Sparks, "The whole idea is being able to enjoy operators’ services away from the PC. This product de-commoditizes the dial tone. The focus is not on dial tone, but also allows you to get a whole package."
Sparks said Thomson is working with other operators that are interested in the cordless phone gateway. "They’re watching what Comcast is doing. And the competitive landscape demands they do something different than just offer dial tone," he said.
More from Thomson
In technologically advanced Hong Kong, Thomson is supplying telecommunications provider PCCW an even-more advanced multimedia home gateway.
The Thomson Portable Media Center, which is branded by PCCW as the "eye 2" enables users to move between IPTV channels, video telephony and a range of online information and media services from PCCW’s walled garden offering, including email and music streaming.
The eye 2 is a WiFi-enabled device. And, although WiFi may not have as good of range as DECT, Sparks said it offers more broadband capabilities, such as full-motion video.
Whether or not subscribers in the United States even want a home gateway is yet to be proven. In February Verizon introduced a "Home Hub" VoIP phone/tablet/digital picture frame, and by October the operator had killed the project.
Prior to the Hub’s launch in February, Verizon issued a release saying: "The Verizon Hub reinvents the home phone system that’s been centered on your kitchen counter for years. We’re bringing huge new functionality to a common household device that will unlock its true potential."
"They are watching what Comcast is doing." Brad Sparks, Thomson.
Sounds a lot like what Comcast is saying about HomePoint.
Granted the Home Hub was substantially more expensive than HomePoint. Verizon wanted $199.99 for the Hub, and subscribers needed to sign on for two years of service at $34.99 per month. Comcast is charging $39.99 for each handset and $5 per month for the base unit in addition to VoIP service.
While Comcast is looking at cordless telephony within the home, Cox Communications is looking outside. As announced in October 2008, Cox plans to add a cell-phone-plus service to its bundle this year.
"We’re very focused on wireless," Cox EVP and CTO Scott Hatfield said last month in CT’s Communications Executive. "We’re not standing up an independent voice-only wireless network. Our goals are to create product integration across a four-product bundle."
Beyond that, Cox execs are being tight-lipped. What they are discussing more openly, however, is non-residential business services.
"The business side has really kind of taken the lead in introducing new (telephony) services and technology," said Bill White, director of voice product management for Cox Business. "If looking into the blue sky, it would be more likely that residential would follow us."
White said for more than three years Cox has been migrating its technology from a traditional Class-5 switch-based infrastructure to the application layer — what White called phase one of Cox Business’ telephony strategy. New apps in its hosted-IP voice product, Voice-Manager, include unified messaging, voice mail on the desktop, click-to-call and simultaneous ring.
One VoiceManager feature that’s been popular with business customers is the business continuity function. In the event of snowstorms, hurricanes, flu outbreaks or other events that make it difficult for employees to come to the office, a small to medium-sized business (SMB) customer can log into its Cox account and reroute calls.
It’s very similar to what Google’s doing with Google Voice where it assigns one phone number to customers and then uses an Internet application to route all the caller’s other numbers, whether land-line or mobile, to that assigned number. It’s a unified communications tool.
"We had some calls from our sales folks when Google came out," said White. They were concerned that Google Voice does the exact same thing as VoiceManager’s continuity function. And Google Voice is free. But Google is strictly an over-the-top service. Those who actually own the networks control quality of experience, which is important for SMBs.
Looking to the future, White said Cox Business intends to leverage its coax plant. "We will be introducing the capability of offering primary rate interface (PRI) over our coax. That’s phase two we’ll be introducing in the marketplace later this year."
Phase three will be session initiation protocol (SIP) trunking to enable different types of end points to communicate with each other. "We have some trials underway, and probably mid-next year we’ll have broader availability," he said.
Plain old telephone service (POTS) is old hat, especially to an operator such as Cox that entered that business back in 1998. Even a relatively new service, such as caller ID on the television set, no longer grabs headlines. But opportunities to innovate remain.
The Comcast cordless gambit and the multi-phase Cox Business telephony strategy — and its wireless build — are all examples of competitive differentiation. They also remind us that "cable" and "television" only go so far in describing the business of today’s MSO.
-Linda Hardesty, associate editor