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Friday 8 July 2005

VOIP is here [Lurks]

Exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog called VOIP is coming where I lamented about how groovy Skype is. For those that have forgotton what Skype is, it's basically a computer-powered software phone that doubles as an instant messenger client. You can place free Skype to Skype calls or you can sign up to Skype Out, load up some money, and get ridiculously cheap calls to real phone numbers world wide.
Quite a bit has changed since then, not the least that this sort of stuff has really begun to pick up. Initially, I must say, Skype was every bit as promising as the earlier blog indicated. However we did find that the call competition rates and general quality was poor enough that the wife simply switched our regular BT telephone over to a cheaper provider and used that. Since I moved into a rented office for work, calls were free and I paid it no more mind.
However now I work from home. One day I began the day and discovered that my BT line was busted and wouldn't allow outgoing calls. This was a nuisance fault which got quickly rectified but it did make me do something I'd been meaning to do for awhile, install Skype again and see if I could use it to call my head offices in Ireland and the US and maybe save the company a good chunk of change in the process. (And I admit, it's a nifty groovy thing to play with in a morning)
In doing so I discovered that Skype has changed too. For a start, in a week's worth of practical use - I have found it far more reliable. Call quality is still sub-standard regular telephone on occasion but I can live with that. SkypeOut is also now in full roll out (it was a beta when I wrote the early blog) and not only that but there's a new SkypeIn service too. For the princely sum of €30 a year, you can get a real telephone number centered in a number of cities in Europe and the US. Naturally I chose London and signing up, I got a bright and shiny brand new 0207 number. If you call this, it rings through on the Skype running on my PC. How cool is that?!
My work phone number is actually an 08700 number which forwards calls to whereever my office happens to be that month. At this point it was our home phone and so the wife was faced with having people call for her getting an answering machine explaining my business details etc. Not exactly idea but not inconvienient enough to get a new phone line.
Friday of last week I redirected the 08700 number to the SkypeIn number and I've been trying this out all week to see if I can use this Skype service transparently as a complete replacement of traditional telephony. The answer, I am happy to report, is that I can. And so this system shall stay, too.
Something I must explain is that you need Skype running to take a call. As part of being signed up to SkypeIn, you get a voicemail service. When Skype isn't running, or if you don't answer the phone within x-many (configurable) rings, people get your voice mail. This would possibly not be ideal for the residence who don't want to have their PC on all the time but for my work application it is absolutely ideal. If the PC isn't on, I'm not at work. I'm not at work, I want you to go through to voicemail.
So let's explain exactly how this is working for me right now in practice. I tend to have an RDC window open to my work machine. I've got Winamp playing on the local machine. Skype rings, it plays a telephone ringing sound (which, incidentally, tabs you out of games but I have found that this works fine when you're playing WoW :-). I switch back to my local desktop and hit the play/pause key on my keyboard to kill PC sound. Then I pick up a USB headset draped over the corner of a nearby couch, slap it on and click on the green button. Bosh I'm talking to whoever is calling me.
To call out, I can either click on bookmarked contacts or type the number into Skype directly. Works as you'd expect and after the call my total SkypeOut credit at the bottom of the GUI ticks down some miniscule amount.
The cool thing is picking up voice mail. You can see a list of voicemail, what contact they came from (if they were in your contacts) or the telephone number. Then you just click on them to listen. It's a lot less pissing around that any voice mail system I've used before.
To be honest, with the USB headset, I could probably leave the PC audio on and it's not going to interfere but I don't want business contacts to necessarily know what I'm listening to at my desk, right? I have found out though, that I can speak on a voice call and tab back to my game (hehe) and carry on talking to them after having reached out to turn the volume down of course (hehe).
This system, so far, is pretty much perfect for me. However as has been pointed out it's probably not perfect for everyone. One thing I would like is a cordless handset so I can strut up and down the house when I'm on the phone, as I used to do. Skype flog directly (though you can buy stuff like this all over the place) various handsets from a simple USB handset (so you can dial numbers on them etc) to the cordless dualphone. This nifty thing plugs into USB on your PC and the regular phone line and you can take incoming calls on both regular phone and Skype and choose to make outgoing calls via either. That's pretty wicked but you will still need a PC on 24/7 to run Skype and there's no answering machine on the regular phone.
The product that I think there's huge demand for is something that zaps into your WiFi router directly and hence doesn't need a PC on and is always active. This is the kind of thing which the cable operators are doing, base stations that plug into cable boxes and so on. These may well be more accessible, understandable and attractive the your general peon on the street. I dare say, though, most of us have some sort of server which could be plugged into for Skype or otherwise. That cordless dualphone in such an environment could rock.
Finally, I'm investigating other IP telephony solutions for bundling with computer systems as part of my job. Skype seemingly aren't bothered about replying to my business development requests so I must look elsewhere. I don't suppose anyone else has seen anything like Skype? I've found one or two but I know there's some bigger brands out there competiting with Skype but I'm blowed if I can find them.
In summary though, Skype is definately ready for the prime time. Earlier this week I sat down in a coffee shop in central London (before they started blowing it up) and picked up my voice mail from my laptop and while I was doing it, fielded a live incoming call to my work telephone number. While this is nothing that you cannot obviously do with a mobile number, this is via my proper office number and I think there's no looking back.
Also, the fact I'm not paying BT is likely to induce a warm fuzzy feeling inside, don't you think?


  1. I forgot to add. The thing about Skype is that it's basically a proprietary protocol. So you can only call other people with Skype. There are, however, a bunch of services such as Vonage and Project Gizmo which use an existing standard for IP telephony (SIPS) and that means you can call quite a large base of people with those odd IP telephone numbers you sometimes find on people's business cards. I'm still looking at the pros and cons of this stuff. Fortunately, thanks to my redirectable number, if I can find a better one then switching isn't too hard.
    I do tend to believe, right now, that the interoperability thing is less important. I'm not sure how much we care about the instance of having free calls (by calling some chap via 100% IP Telephony) compared to the utility of calling regular telephone numbers which everyone is bound to have anyway.

  2. I too have a London number on SkypeIn and the Voicemail service. This has enabled me to stop using my mobile almost completely (which somehow has continued to cost me 40GBP/month - wankers). Actually, my mobile diverts all calls to my Skype Voicemail now, so I guess in a way I've started the jump to VOIP.
    My use of Skype to call UK Landlines has dwindled. On a very high latency connection the call quality becomes unusable... a bit like when you're on a train going through tunnels and the other end can only hear you broken. Nothing is ever going to fix this (but there is always the fall-back of Skype Chat).
    Perhaps it would be feasible for a future version to change quality on the fly depending on call latency - upwards for solid LAN/WAN connections, downwards for long distance t'interweb.
    As ever with the Slashdot morons, I had an argument some months ago about proprietary protocols. Well, I didn't have the argument, the Lunix geeks did. Skype use is frowned on because it's proprietary and run for profit. Fucking hippies; if the choice is Skype or nothing, I choose Skype. It bloody works for God's sake. When Project Gizmo [or something else] comes along, if its any good, I'll think about jumping to it. Whilst the Lunix geeks blab on about the "numerous other" non-commercial VOIP opportunities, they're ignoring the blatantly obvious - Skype works, and it works pretty well. Its also mainstream enough that you can send your Mother/Wife/Sister/Mistress to to download their own copy.
    Integrated Skype phones are getting there - the current options are a bit first gen and the non-Skype ones look like far too much of a pain. It won't be long before you're looking at a nifty WiFi handset that is your landline and your Skype!

  3. I'd add that yesterday I was trying to make calls internationally whilst in London to let the folks know I was OK, of course all landlines weren't working and neither was my mobile. Skype to the rescue, clear reception call to a satellite phone in the was only €1/minute!

  4. My wife sets up various cheap phone deals on our phone. Ones where you prefix with a few extra numbers. Can talk to my sister in Oz for 1p a minute (might be 2p atm). UK calls 1p for entire call and so on.
    Prices like this just seem mad but negate the need for bothering with VOIP unless I've missed something -probably have ;-)

  5. The pre-dial numbers and call cards are cheap compared to standard international PSTN charges for a reason. You're routed over best cost links, which are often high latency half-duplex lines, and line echo and call dropouts aren't that rare.
    From what I understand, the operators of such services make their money out of connection fees.

  6. That's horseshit. When you use such services, and we've been using them in our house to dial Australia and South African for a long time now, all you are doing is availing yourself of a company that gates you through a VOIP network. They simply terminate your call in the local country of origin, transit via the Internet and then buy a local VOIP break out at the destination. Call quality has fuck all to do with latency or 'half-duplex' lines. It's down to the quality offered by the VOIP break out services in each country.
    Very often you're coming out on exactly the same company's PSTN gateway whether you use an IP phone or you use something like OneTel, Alpha Telecom etc etc.

  7. Hold on a moment, we're talking about a business model thats been around for decades, many operators may now be using the internet for international routing to lower their costs but its a very recent thing.

  8. Er, you mean you're talking about a business model that's been around for decades. I was talking about consumer VOIP. If you cast your mind back to the explosion in cheap calls outfits, when posters appeared everywhere in the tube etc, that was the advent of VOIP gateway stuff. This was a couple of years ago. This is how all of this stuff works now.
    Those a little different from bargain basement el-cheapo VOIP gateways because they tend to use single pre-arranged gateways in each country with a minimum level of quality. Direct VOIP stuff (like Skype) just tends to broker to the cheapest provider and transcodes between codecs so there's audible artifacts. SIPS compatible systems generally use the same codec all the way through and so often are the same quality as PSTN, unlike Skype for example.

  9. Anyone having problems with frequent call drop outs? I can't work out if it is my end or the other skype caller's end. It doesn't seem consitent. Some calls go forever and others drop out at 20 to 40 second intervals. Are there any test programmes other than the skype 123 that will give me a lead?