VON Visions: It's About Being in Control
With VoIP, we all get to sit in the telecom driver's seat01-May-2004
Updated: 23-Jun-2004

Copy of the original column from Von Magazine

With VoIP, we all get to sit in the telecom driver’s seat.

After a busy day at VON I was back in my hotel room and had to place a call to Australia. So I just dialed the +61 number on my cell phone but got an error message. I tried dialing 0 but that was another dead end in the cellular world. I then dialed 411 which got me Verizon information. I was told to call *611 for support. *611 explained that the problem was simple–I wasn’t enabled for International dialing. The solution, however, wasn’t simple because it was after 11 P.M. and Verizon had gone home for the night and there was no way I could add the feature to my phone! The idea of a phone company "going home for the night" is very strange. Where is outsourcing when I need it?

This story does have a happy ending–Verizon charges $.65/minute for calling Australia from my cell phone. On a landline, once you pay a $4/month/line fee, it is $.10/minute. For $.95/month you get a plan that charges $1.30/minute for Australia.

I had forgotten that I had already forwarded one of my 800 numbers to Australia. By using my 800 number the cost for calling Australia is only a penny a minute more than calling within the US! Too bad there is still a $.20/minute fee for calling a cell phone within Australia!

For now I tolerate Verizon because they offer benefits such as very good coverage in the United States. When I finally gave up trying to use the hotel’s so-called high speed Internet access I connected my PC to my cell phone and used Verizon’s 1xRTT service to get a connection. I can also forward my Verizon (only Verizon!) calls automatically to the Verizon phone at my seat in the plane.

I haven’t even begun to touch upon all of the different plans and interactions and pitfalls. Because I do use so many Verizon services I can avail myself of their Encore service but if I try to connect my cellular account to my land account I’ll trip an event that automatically extends my cellular account lock-in period another year! The complexity does seem to favor Verizon but even their own staff apparently doesn’t grasp all of the possible interactions.

Verizon’s plans may be extremely complex but Verizon is far from alone. In using other carriers I find each has its own set of quirks. What none of them give me is control.

The other big problem is that I am not free to choose which device to buy–the carriers tell me! I can’t even upgrade my PDA unless the carrier deigns to do the upgrade and they don’t even bother supporting older devices that don’t add call revenue. The radio within my PDA is just a chip and not at all special. The very idea that I have to cede control of my computer just to be able to use the radio is outrageous. I could spend years fighting this in court as a clear violation of anti-trust (I am not lawyer and thus it is clear to me).

Instead I will use the Internet as a transport and simply leave the existing telephone infrastructure behind.

IP takes power away from the carriers. Instead of presenting me with a Byzantine maze of ever-changing twisting and winding passages, each with its own traps and interactions, IP gives me a simple open transport and lets me go directly from one end point to another. It’s so simple that there isn’t a way to charge a separate rate for accessing a web page in Australia vs. the US. There is no additional charge for streaming audio to Australia rather than within the US.

The best part is that I can just do it myself. I can write a program allowing me to converse over the Internet, though it’s far simpler to use a service like Free World Dialup, Skype, Vonage or ATT (CallVantage). Unlike the PSTN, I have a real option to do it myself. In fact, that’s really what FWD and Skype are–programs written by users, not by gatekeepers.

While it’s nice that using the Internet for telephony is free (once you have a good connection) what is more important is that I am in control. That’s what the Internet is really about–control shifts from the carriers to all of us at the network’s edge.