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Rethinking Voice as an App

VoIP does for voice what cloud computing did for the Web, experts say.

A new Internet protocol (IP) voice network was launched this week by Bandwidth.com of Cary, NC. The company hopes to attract businesses interested in advanced features, such as the ability to make one phone number ring several phones, but who don’t want to pay for all the old phone infrastructure. It already has one very big customer: Google Voice.

Bandwidth.com’s chief technology officer, T.R. Missner, says the fundamental advantage of his company’s network is that it’s not bound by any legacy technologies, such as switches, used by the traditional phone system. Missner says that switches can create idiosyncracies in a network, leading to better or worse service depending on geography. But an all-IP voice network, such as Bandwidth.com’s FlexNetwork, should offer consistent services everywhere, he says.

Though Bandwidth.com says it built this network and owns it, in today’s world, that doesn’t mean the company laid any cable. Instead, it involves weaving together a system of Internet circuits, IP routing technologies, and connections to other telephone providers. “The hardest part and the longest pull is the interconnections with all of the various [carriers],” Missner says.

The FlexNetwork also offers interfaces that customers can use to write voice applications that take advantage of the network’s features. It can provide its customers with local phone numbers in any part of the U.S., for example. Bandwidth.com makes money by charging customers for those phone numbers, or minutes served.

Missner declined to talk specifically about Google Voice, but FCC filings from earlier this year reveal that Bandwidth.com provides the backbone for the service, which offers users one number that can be used to reach all their phones, and provides a number of additional features such as voice-mail transcription and the ability to receive text messages as e-mails.

Ifbyphone, a phone automation services company based in Skokie, IL, also uses Bandwidth.com’s network. Ifbyphone CEO Irv Shapiro says that the introduction of all-IP networks allows businesses to “treat the telephone like we treat a Web browser.” He explains that, just as companies can build applications that automate services for their customers through a Web browser, similar applications can now be delivered over the phone.

Users have encountered voice applications before, of course, such as the interactive voice response systems used by airlines to provide basic flight information. The difference, Shapiro says, is that in the past, a company would have had to buy a specialized phone switch and hundreds of thousands of dollars in related equipment to offer such an application. VoIP allows similar applications to be delivered over the network, much as cloud computing services are delivered to companies over the Internet.

For VoIP networks, Shapiro notes, “it used to be that the assumption was that the service didn’t have to be as reliable.” Ifbyphone was attracted to the FlexNetwork because of Bandwidth.com’s promises of a robust network, he says.

The company’s claims of reliable nationwide coverage do suggest something “a little unique” for VoIP networks, says Rob Enderle, founder of the research company Enderle Group. “Most VoIP companies provide a centralized service that you can access anyplace, but they’re not in the position to ensure quality of service because the network isn’t theirs,” he says. “If [Bandwidth.com] can actually do that, that would be an advantage for them.”

Enderle adds that IP voice networks enable a variety of features that are otherwise prohibitively complex. They lend themselves, for example, to combining voice mail and e-mail, creating a universal in-box for several phone numbers, or adding lots of users to a conference call. (Hardware limitations can make this difficult on traditional systems.) “In terms of convergence,” he says, “it makes any of those next-generation things vastly easier to do because you’re not trying to juggle an analog network and a data network that for the most part don’t work well together.”

Missner says the company worked to bridge between different types of networks and technologies to create hybrid features such as the ability to send text messages from phones that are considered landlines, or send text messages via instant messaging programs.

“When you think of voice as an application, there’s a lot of innovation that becomes possible,” he says. “Having a pure IP voice network is a catalyst.”

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