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TelephoneThere has been a lot of interest and feedback from readers about the recent patrickWeb stories about "long distance". Most are saying, "where can I get it?", but others are saying "not so fast". This is understandable given that we are beginning to go through a very disruptive period with regard to telephony. We are 5% of the way into what is in store for us.  One concern was raised by Tony Paulson who pointed out that 911 service is not available via the new SIP services. Another issue is being able to retain your existing phone number and avoid having to have two phone systems in your home — one connected to the local phone company and another plugged into your cable or DSL router. Thanks to Bob Ishida in Tokyo for telling me about how Yahoo! Japan Broadband has solved both of these problems in Japan.
I have no doubt that 911 will be offered by all Internet telephony services, although it may take awhile to get there. The number portability issue is different. Beginning next month we will have the freedom to keep our cell-phone number when changing wireless companies. Although not as well publicized, we will also have the ability to move a number from a regular wired phone to a cell-phone or move a cell-phone number to a wired phone. (The latter will likely be rare at a time when millions of people are going 100% wireless at home and at work.) How about moving a wired phone to an Internet telephony service? It depends. Vonage claims that “you are no longer tied to your local area code”. You can select any area code you want from their list of available area codes which includes many but not all U.S. area codes. If you have a relative living in California and you live in New York, you can get a California area code for your Vonage phone. Your relative can then make a “local” call to you. Moving your existing number to Vonage, however, is more than a mouse click. In those cases where Vonage offers your area code and your rate center (the first three digits of your number after the area code), they say “there’s a good chance we can help you keep your existing phone number if you choose Vonage phone service”. It involves downloading a “Transfer Authorization Form” and faxing it to a toll free number. The transfer is only available in some states — not including where I live. Existing telephone companies will do everything they can to slow down the progress of Internet Telephony and state governments will try to tax the new services like they do telephony services. One court has already ruled that Internet Telephony is a data service, not a telephony service. That is a hopeful sign.
Meanwhile, as Bob Ishida points out, Yahoo! Japan Broadband has already solved the key problems. In addition to providing broadband service in Japan at the lowest prices in the world (8 to 26 megabits per second for $8.50 to $11.75 per month), they have a database for converting the Internet address of your DSL router to a phone number. Complete compatibility between old way and new way — no faxing of forms “to assist you in your application….”. The Yahoo! service also permits emergency calls such as 911 (it’s 119 in Japan) to be automatically switched to the proper place The Yahoo! BB service has more than 3,000,000 customers and is growing.
The United States is clearly behind in taking the steps to encourage the telecommunications industry to stop lobbying for protection and to exploit the potential the Internet has to offer. U.S. telecommunications companies call 250,000 bits per second “broadband” and it costs $30 per month or more. In Japan, Yahoo!’s minimum offering is 8 million bits per second and it costs less than $9 per month. Something is wrong with this picture. It is not a technology problem — it is a regulatory problem. A much more aggressive and visionary telecom policy is needed at the federal level to push the deployment and capabilities of broadband. Instead we have confusion and lawsuits. Some pundits believe that the answer is to get rid of the FCC. I am not sure that is the answer. If we got rid of the FAA, airplanes would crash. Getting rid of the FCC might cause chaos. I believe what is needed is a mandate from the executive branch and congress to deregulate broadband — and put the FCC on a mission to remove bottleknecks and encourage competition and innovation. As for Internet telephony, it is unstoppable. I can feel the grass roots movement around SIP (the protocol for voice over the Internet) just like what is happening with blogging and WiFi. Stay tuned.