The future of "long distance" is getting more clear each day. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried two stories, that appeared as unrelated, but which I believe are actually part of the same overall picture. One was about number portability and the other about WiFi roaming.
Number portability means that you can take your phone number with you. The FCC has been pushing the idea for some time. The idea is to enable a cell phone user to change provider (AT&T to Verizon, Sprint to Nextel, etc.) and not have to get a new number. The objective being to give more users more freedom to choose and thereby increase competition. The providers fought the idea saying it would cost billions of dollars and take a long time to do. Then Verizon decided, surely thinking they would be a net beneficiary, to back the idea. It goes into effect later this month and is a very positive step for user convenience. The FCC has also ruled that number portability will apply to moving your wired phone to a wireless service. This is a good idea too. Millions of people have a single phone line at home and would be just as happy to have a single cell phone and use it at home and on the road. Assuming good cell coverage at your home, the only disadvantage would be not having multiple phones connected to the same line. The bigger issue is number portability for moving your land line phone service to an Internet based service such as Vonage or Packet8.
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. Although there are some bumps in the road, the progression toward a world of predominantly Internet telephony is underway.
One of the technologies which will accelerate the move to an IP telephony world is WiFi. Most people have heard of it by now and millions use it. However, the major impact of WiFi is yet to be seen. When a tiny WiFi chip becomes a standard feature in mobile phones and personal digital assistants, the world changes. Now these handheld devices become connected to the Internet at broadband speeds. The cell phone providers talk about their “next generation or 3G” at 100,000 bits per second with the hope of 2 million bits per second, but with WiFi the handhelds will have access to potentially tens of millions of bits per second. The impact is that instead of connecting to the Internet being one of the features of cell phone services, with WiFi having a voice conversation becomes one of the things you can do while you are connected to the Internet. This is profound It is possible already and will be pervasive in the very near future. One inhibitor is roaming and the Wall Street Journal story talked about how people are working on the problem and that progress is being made. Of course! It is the grass roots at work. Standards based grass roots activities engage a large and broad community to solve problems. WiFi is not controlled by monopolies or any one company or group of companies. The naysayers will prove to be wrong and WiFi will have a profound positive impact on all of us by extending the reach and range of the Internet. More people will do more things, more often, and from billions of different kinds of devices.