Ooma wants voice to be free

168 Comments

logo_wht_thm.jpgVoice over the Internet, so far, has been a game of cheap minutes, shoddy quality, and unreliable connections. It’s also been a money-losing proposition. The promise of voice being free has remained just that – a promise. Palo Alto-based startup Ooma promises to resolve those frustrations in September 2007 while offering free voice calls for life.

In doing so, it’s relying on a very old tech strategy: Just as PCs shifted some functionality from mainframes into your house, Ooma’s boxes will handle locally some of the telecom switching that normally happens on phone networks. Go ahead, roll your eyes. I did too when I first met Andrew Frame, the founder of Ooma, over a year ago. [digg=http://digg.com/hardware/Free_voice_calls_for_life]

Frame, a former Cisco employee, came across as a paranoid startup founder hyping his company. “This will cause some major shifts in the voice business, it will make voice free,” he said.

But it’s clear Ooma is part of a large trend, one of chips and software commoditizing services. iTunes did it to music, Sling Media did it to television, and Ooma is on the right track to do it to voice calls.

That promise has attracted a number of investors: Draper Fisher Jurvetson, the Founders’ Fund, Draper Richards, WI Harper and Worldview Technology Partners are backers of the three-year-old company. From them, Ooma garnered $27 million in two rounds of venture funding. It’s not strictly true to say Ooma is offering free voice – after all, you do pay a monthly tariff for your broadband connection. Similarly there are other costs, including value-added services, the company plans to roll out later. The company will also charge a modest fee for international calls.

Ooma’s achievement was to build a slick box, which runs a couple of general purpose processors and embedded Linux, costing about $399. It will eventually be sold at consumer electronics stores with a promise: free voice service within the US.

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The simplicity of the box masks complex technology. You plug it into your broadband connection and you are all set to go. You pick a number of your choice on the website. If you have an old fashioned landline, you can plug it into the box as well. A port allows you to connect to the kind of home phone network that most homes already have.

An optional device, called Scout, allows you to extend your Ooma network across your home via vanilla phone jacks. All your current handsets can plug into any phone jack. The phone rings, just as it always does. Using a hack that most DSL folk are familiar with, Ooma offers a second line that relies on sending information at higher frequencies, ones that are available outside of those used by the voice channel. You can use it to make or pick up a call on another handset without disrupting the first call. And like old-fashioned voice mail systems, you can listen to a voice message before picking up the phone.

So how does Ooma manage “free” voice calls? Say you call Manhattan. Ooma routes the call to an Ooma box to the 212 area code, with the local carrier accepting it as a regular outbound call. It works even if the destination number lacks an Ooma box.

It’s free to you, though it does cost the Ooma box in far-flung area codes, but most of the local call plans are flat rate and come with unlimited calling. Ooma piggybacks on existing phone services, bringing all the things you expect from a traditional phone service, like dialing 911. (Walt Mossberg gives his thumbs up to this service.)

In telecom lingo, this is called distributed termination. The more boxes on the Ooma network, the more termination points – and , more voice calls the system can carry to the public switched phone networks. This sounds eerily similar to Jeff Pulver’s Free World Dial-Up in concept. Execution is a different story, and we always can count on Jeff to think of the next big voice thing. Ooma has really done is basically take a media gateway and put it into its box.

Think of it another way: What the PC did to the mainframe, Ooma is doing it to the telecom switch. It’s a brilliant technological achievement, tempered by some serious regulatory and go-to-market challenges. These challenges are not simple.

I cannot overstate the wrath Ooma will feel from incumbents. Since Ooma threatens the carriers’ core business, they’ll do their best to crush it, arguing Ooma bypasses the local access regulatory structure. Don’t forget the mortal combat between Vonage and Verizon. If so, Ooma’s $27 million in venture funding will be nowhere near enough.

And Ooma will need to convince customers to buy the device. The $399 price tag for the box puts it out of range of people who need cheap voice: budget-conscious callers. Voice, local voice to be specific, is pretty cheap in the US, and that might cause adoption resistance.

It is a dilemma Frame and his team will need to figure out.

If you have any ideas, leave your comments below, or email Ooma using this address – [email protected]. The first 50 people to email will receive a free Ooma box.

Update: During the beta test, you will need an incumbent phone line, according to Ravneet who signed up. The company did not reveal this during our conversation. Secondly, this incumbent requirement will go away in September 2007, when the product launches. I have posted some clarifications in comments, and will answer more of your questions. This post was written late at night, so I might have skipped a few things.

168 Comments

jccodez

This is just another prime example of gigaom getting in over its head trying to heap praise on a non-starter. Firstly, you spam stock posting about ebay, skype ect…then try to pump this bile. Please, please, you are about 1 step above valleywag here…between you and techmunch, I get plenty of laughs daily. Thanks for the grins.

Om Malik

The long distance calls – international – are still going to cost you money, though I bet a lot less than what the Bells charge you.

I agree with you guys this company’s target market is overseas, but why they choose to go after the local market is hard to understand.

az1324

This is interesting but it seems like Magicjack has more of a chance in this market. They leverage your PC hardware instead of requiring you to purchase dedicated hardware (which can be a plus or minus) and I suspect they are also using P2P routing in their software. Furthermore they have the additional revenue sources coming from the interconnect fees and the ads and don’t rely on any POTS integration. The major shifts in the voice business are going to come from eliminating all POTS lines. Combine this with VOIP over 3G and wifi phones replacing cordless phones in the home and you eliminate the need for conventional switched telephony. The communication channels are covered end to end. Throw in some nice user-controlled encryption and I’ll be a happy camper.

@gopi

There will many Indian IT Professional will be looking for cheap calls to India. This will be another area where you need to check out is how competitive rates you can give for international calling.

Miles Nielsen

This sounds like a cool idea, using P2P tech to toss phone calls around. I’m glad of the advancements made in the internet//telephone area — the beginnings of internet phone calls had poor connection and sound quality, but not so much anymore. Now issues include cost and networks and such.

LoansEye

Lets see the response from people in the near future. The reaction from people will decide its worth.

Piyush Desai

No monthly bills and just buy Ooma Hub a small device that looks like answering machine. Great way to save phone bills.

@gopi

Recently VOIP service provider Sunrocket went out of business after paying year of service fees in advance.

Ooma is offering good service but not sure in this market if it survives or not.

But the initial $399 fee is very expensive for phone service.

Cory

I just read the Mossberg post that Om referenced. It does appear that the key to building their network is to get their boxes out there, with users connecting their landlines so they can be leveraged for termination, creating their own peer to peer network for grassroots interconnect and call routing in the process. I would imagine they have some type of QoS mechanism built into their boxes as well.

This is not a new idea, but certainly has merit in my opinion. MKC Networks, a PBX provider based in Canada, had the ability to peer their customers PBX systems in a similar manner, and the boxes could be leveraged to terminate calls, but I don’t think they ever commercialized the concept.

If Ooma can build critical mass and get enough of their hardware out there to create a good footprint, creating redundant paths for call termination by having multiple users in each area they need to terminate calls, the model is certainly feasible. As to how they will make money in the process, I’m not certain.

Cory

If you want to make calls to landlines it would seem they would have to have a local gateway to get those calls off of the IP network and onto the PSTN. Perhaps they intend to have their own private network or subcontract other commercial local gateways/DIDs, and supplement their commercial transport terminating calls to Ooma users who have PSTN lines connected to their boxes. Least cost routing, if an Ooma gateway with PSTN line is available to terminate the call it is routed in that method, if not, the call is terminated by a commercial gateway.

Regardless, for the mass market that these companies need to reach, I believe it boils down to the user experience. Simple is better.

Victor Blake

I have to completely disagree about the characterization of “voice over the Internet” quality. I hope all of your readers realize that if you use a POTS line most voice is actually carried over either private ip networks or the Internet (yes even if it’s the incumbent). The only difference is what’s it’s called and what’s being done to impede the free stuff and prioritize the revenue stuff.

It’s like saying “it was a horrible flight” (because it was so crowded” while your boss had a “wonderful flight” because it was cushy in first class. SAME FLIGHT — different experience because SOMEONE PAID MORE!

Aswath

@Josh:

The induction microphone you are thinking of is the standard telephone connected to another phone jack in the house. The user may not know you, but will know the other end’s phone number. Since your friend is in the same geographical area as the user, may even be able to track your friend. I will be staying away from such service and if known will not accept such calls from my friends either.

Josh

If my calls are on occasion being terminated via another end-user’s legacy landline, doesn’t that give the other user an opportunity to eavesdrop on my calls? I believe it’s trivial to use an induction microphone to listen to a call carried over a POTS line without the callers being aware. While that user might never know who I am, the possibility of my calls being recorded by strangers is disconcerting.

Ken Rebeyro

If you can give us free calls to Europe you will get a lot more subscribers.
regards & good luck

Ken

Jayman Dalal

This is super cool. Free voice calls. I have been using Lingo for over 3 years, this looks like more savings in that direction. Can try it out.

What about the international calls? Can we make those?

Eideard

From Om’s Post:

“The simplicity of the box masks complex technology. You plug it into your broadband connection and you are all set to go.”

Does that answer a few questions?

Jacob Varghese

I don’t fully understand the technology, but my recommendation is to include functionality that will allow users to take mobile calls on a home phone handset.

I know that you can already purchase a system that allows you to take calls on a cordless phone system, but that can just handle one cell phone. most modern households have a one cell line per person. I have no need for a home phone line, but I do think it’s a pain to carry my cell phone with me around the house. I would like to see something like a office pbx system that is designed for the home.

Jacob Varghese

….and Ashton Kutcher is their Creative Director.

I wonder if they plan on using him to go after the MTV crowd.

Aswath

I am writing this, but thanks I don’t want this box. Give it to another sucker who wants it. This technique has already been done and I have $60 box that can do this. If you don’t believe me ask David Beckemeyer. Please take back your heaped praise on their engineering marvel. It is neither brilliant, nor technical nor an achievement.

You fail to point out that one has to keep the incumbent’s line when you took the effort to highlight one has to have a broadband connection.

By the way, in my book such termination is not legal.

Russ

I’m not sure I get this. If I understand the way you’ve described it, the Ooma box on the terminating end acts as a media gateway and dials the local number over a local phoneline, transfering the VoIP call through as a locally terminated call, or something like that.

But, doesn’t that mean that each Ooma box needs to have a local telephone line? So, as an Ooma subscriber, I’ll need to keep my local telephone line and all I’m really saving money on is the LD charges. That’s not very compelling, is it?

Help me understand.

Chirag Patel

Why stop at the US? This would make perfect sense on a world-wide basis. Why not use the the same technology to route a call from the US to Singapore or from India to France?

JP Checa

I’m a Skype user as well and I find that it’s pretty good for what I paid $30/yr. I like the fact that there is the “visual voicemail” feature in the Skype interface and would like to see that in Ooma. Can you access the box remotely from a browser to grab vmail and change settings like vacation messages, forwarding, etc? I guess i don’t know enough about the unit to say that i would absolutely need one, but with the right set of features I would be content.

The only screaming of the phrase “Mortal Kombat” was in the movie’s theme song. I actually prefer the deathly tone of the game’s announcer to get things going.

Kunal Kundaje

This is really interesting stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing their progress over the coming months.

Not sure if I’m too late to be one of the first 50, but I just sent an email to the alias a few minutes ago. Let’s see how it goes.

SVP

So effectively, Ooma will be terminating out of the end users box? If so, what if I dont have an unlimited local plan?

Om Malik

dude, i am old guy. mortal combat as in old people speak. did yu send the email. you going to get one to try out.

Raymond Padilla

I’m very curious about this product. I currently use a melange of VoipDiscount, Y! Messenger, and Skype for business and personal calls. For domestic calls, they all work about the same. For international calls, there’s a big difference in pricing and call quality (Skype sounds better, but Y! Messenger costs half as much to some places in Asia). I can’t wait to see what Ooma’s pricing will be like and if the call quality to Asia is any good.

Oh and Om, in gamerspeak, it’s Mortal Kombat!!! The uppercase K is important…as is the screaming.

:P

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