* Internet Phone Service: Not Ready For Prime Time

Only when Internet telephone services can be purchased and activated at 11:00 pm on a Sunday night will they be ready for prime time.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 9/1/1998; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; publisher: American Bar Association.

It’s 8:00 pm on Tuesday (typically the Internet’s busiest day), my column is overdue (not an uncommon situation), and I’m about to get online. Then it occurs to me that it would be really helpful to be able to call a friend while I’m writing this column, while keeping my other line free for phone calls. In other words, time to try “Internet telephone” services, voice over IP, using my Internet connection for both my Internet data and my voice data.

Internet telephony is still in its infancy, and no company immediately comes to mind as a leader in the field. There are no AT&Ts, MCIs, and Sprints here – yet. Or at least not at the consumer level. Internet telephony can be implemented at various levels in the hierarchy of internetworking protocols. What I’ll focus on in this column is a consumer-oriented service, one that is built on top of the Internet software you already have. So, armed with only my computer, Internet connection, and credit card, I set out to see if I could place a phone call over the Internet using the same connection that I use for getting my e-mail.

After searching at Yahoo for a minute or two using combinations of search words (net, phone, Internet, telephony), I landed at the Web site of VocalTec (http://www.vocaltec.com/), which makes a product called iPhone. (I think I saw this at InternetWorld 95 in Boston – you know, the year of the Internet).

Since I think this stuff is easier to describe with pictures that with words, here is a diagram of how VocalTec’s product works.

In short, the above diagram shows how you can (theoretically) make a phone call from your computer to a regular Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) phone. In order to complete this task, you need (in addition to your computer and Internet Service Provider account) two things.

First, you need software to send and receive phone calls from your computer. This is what VocalTec sells. Their iPhone software is the user-interface to Internet telephony. You can download a trial version from their Web site and then purchase a license to make the trial version fully functional.

Second, you need an account with an Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP), a company that makes its money by transferring phone calls from the Internet to the Public Switched Telephone Network. Currently there are two or three ITSPs that offer service across all of the United States.

Finally, it should be noted that you need a computer with a microphone and speakers, standard fare on all Intel and Macintosh computers these days. (Which is not to say that configuring the audio to do the right things is trivial. More on this challenge later.)

Step 1 – Getting iPhone Software

Of course, the trial version of VocalTec’s iPhone software came with a price tag: marketing information in the form of my e-mail address. This is why it’s helpful to keep a couple extra e-mail addresses hanging around so you can send all your junk e-mail to addresses you never check. My apologies to all in marketing. You can also purchase the iPhone software. The version I purchased was $49.95.

Step 2 – Establishing a ITSP Account

Next you need an account with an ITSP to take your calls from the Internet to a regular telephone. Setting up my ITSP account was much much harder than it should have been. It seems that many ITSPs have created their own browser plug-ins (which act as a replacement for the iPhone software), and their Web sites often focused on how to make the plug-ins work rather than how to set up an ITSP account.

VocalTec’s Web site listed three ITSPs who provided service throughout the United States and Canada: Delta Three (http://www.deltathree.com/), Dot Com Technologies (http://www.internetphonecall.com/), and WIN (http://www.win-inc.com/).

Delta Three’s Web site said “Upon registration, you will receive a starter kit including a PIN code and User Name via Email within three working days.” What’s the purpose of having an online application if I have to wait three business days to get what I’ve paid for? I guess these folks didn’t get the memo about e-commerce. Oh yeah, they also charge 12.5 cents/minute for calls to the United States and Canada. This is the age of the Internet, and I’ve got a deadline! On to the next Web ITSP.

Dot Com Technologies wins the award for the coolest domain name of the three (internetphonecall.com), and their per-minute rates to the United States and Canada were listed as 10 cents with a three minute minimum. But it too lacked a simple, user-friendly immediate access option. Strike two.

The third company, WIN, didn’t seem to offer for-pay service at all. They appeared to offer a demo service with free unlimited calling to US area codes 305, 954 and 561. Their Web site also contained the following notice: “INTERNET PHONE CALL QUALITY – PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT THE QUALITY OF SERVICE OF INTERNET TELEPHONY IS NOT EQUIVALENT TO REGULAR TELEPHONE SERVICE. N0 MONEY WILL BE REFUNDED TO CUSTOMERS WHO ARE NOT PLEASED WITH THE QUALITY OF THE CALL.”

At this point, I’d be happy if I could just make a call at all!

So I went back to Delta Three, entered my credit card info (a one-time charge of $19.95 was the minimum), and decided to wait three days for my account to be created. The message I received while my card was being processed (“Please wait whilst we process the credit card transaction. This process will take approximately 30 seconds.”) suggested that this was not a US-based company. So I looked up deltathree.com in the InterNIC’s domain name database and discovered that the company is based in Israel. Which makes me wonder if there are US regulations at work that are making it more cost-effective for ITSPs to locate oversees. Just speculation.

And then the server reported an error indicating that the online form appeared to be broken, so even this attempt was thwarted!

Giving Up

I did take a look at other “Internet telephone” options, but many were simply glorified chat programs that didn’t allow you to call to a regular phone, only to another chat-like “phone” user.

NetSpeak Corporation (http://www.itelco.com/) has a product called WebPhone that fits this description. VocalTec’s iPhone also offers this sort of computer-to-computer chatting.

I also searched for “ITSP,” “InternetPhone,” and “WebPhone,” on the Web sites of the big three telco companies (AT&T, MCI, and Sprint). I found nothing.

And just as I was about to quit, I checked e-mail and, lo and behold, I got my username/password from Delta Three that enabled me (after some guesswork) to configure InternetPhone with my Delta Three ITSP account! Of course, I got the message “caller account expired.” So does that mean that my trial version of InternetPhone had expired (I’ve been trying to write this for a while), or that my just-created ITSP account had expired?

After some head scratching, I concluded that my trial version of InternetPhone had expired. So I opted to purchase the fully functional version of iPhone. After placing that order, VocalTec’s Web site displayed this message: “Thank you for ordering software from VocalTec Communications. Your request has been sent successfully. Your registration code should be sent to you by E-Mail within one to two business days.”

Argh! These folks must have gone to the 10-hotdogs-12-hotdog-rolls school of marketing!

Just then, a bug flew into my home/office and landed on my computer. (Probably not the first bug that’s been there.) I was able to quickly kill it with my credit card that was still lying on top of my keyboard, so the night wasn’t a total loss.

Success (of Sorts)

A few days after completing my frustrating experience with Internet telephony, I decided to give it one more try. My iPhone registration code still hadn’t arrived from VocalTec, so I was still fumbling with the demo iPhone software, but whatever bugs were plaguing my previous experiment seemed to have disappeared, because this time when I placed a call (via iPhone’s keypad interface), it worked! I called, it rang, I talked, I heard!

The quality of the call was much better on the phone-to-Internet part of the call (what I heard) than on the Internet-to-phone part of the call (what I said). There was about a 2-second delay on the phone-to-Internet portion, and there was so much clipping and drop-out on the Internet-to-phone portion that this portion of the call was incomprehensible. In fact, the VocalTec help pages stated “If you have a problem with packet loss on your network please consult your Internet Service Provider.” Translation: get a faster connection.

And fine-tuning the audio was anything but easy. After placing several calls to a colleague, I concluded that – at least at dial-up speeds – this flavor of Internet telephone is not a viable substitute for a “traditional” phone call. This was not really a surprise to me. The immature e-commerce sites of vendors involved in Internet telephony (complete with multi-day delays in setting up service) was a surprise. If I can order a book from Amazon.Com with next-day delivery, I should be able to do the same with Internet telephony services. In fact, my expectations are higher for vendors of intangibles: for those I should be able to establish service instantaneously, because there is no tangible product that they need to ship.

I can order call waiting 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. I can buy a book from Amazon 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. Only when Internet telephone services can be purchased and activated at 11:00 pm on a Sunday night will they be ready for prime time. Today is not that day.

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