EarthLink Takes a Vling at Voice

Beta of open-standards-based softphone client is harbinger of ambitious IP telephony plans for the nationwide ISP.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted Aug 23, 2005
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Atlanta-based ISP EarthLink has been offering IP voice services to its broadband customers since 2003, but it's thinking BIG about VoIP these days.

EarthLink's opening shot in the battle of the VoIP is a free software download called Vling (download) that will provide free PC-to-PC calling plus instant messaging in a package very similar to that offered by Skype. Tom Hsieh, EarthLink's Director of Voice Products and Engineering—creator of Vling—was quick to point out to EnterpriseVoIPplanet, however, that while Skype uses a proprietary protocol, Vling is built around the IETF IP communications standard protocol SIP.

Like Skype, EarthLink will sell outgoing PSTN connectivity by the minute and offer incoming 'virtual numbers.' Also standard to both interfaces is a 'presence' feature that indicates availability status of callers in your phonebook. But voice mail, an extra-cost feature with Skype, is standard with Vling.

EarthLink's Director of Corporate Communications, Jerry Grasso, explained that EarthLink will give away some PSTN minutes to members to get them to try the service out at no cost—on the assumption that once they've experienced it they'll then purchase more minutes.

Grasso went on to point out that, as a SIP-based service, Vling can call any other SIP device, on or off the Vling network, for free, using that device's URI (uniform resource identifier—the SIP equivalent of a website URL). "Of course, if you're calling non-Vling users, the IM or the presence features won't be available," he said.

Tom Hsieh is very enthusiastic about Vling's voice quality. "I never use a headset with Vling," he told VoIPplanet. "I just talk into my laptop. The sound is very nuanced. I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues recently, and I said 'What's that sound? Are you filing your nails?' And he was!" According to Hsieh, this is courtesy of Vling's use of Global IP Sound's VoiceEngine PC codec.

Both Hsieh and Grasso emphasized that in its current state EarthLink views Vling as a "technology preview." "The technology is great," Hseih told VoIPplanet. "It has a great future." "It's definitely going to grow and evolve," said Grasso. "Our ambitions for the product are much larger."

Hsieh suggested, without being terribly specific, that video was likely to enter the picture at some point in the future, particularly with reference to the 'picture presence' feature currently implemented.

In other VoIP action, EarthLink will later this year release an updated version of EarthLink Unlimited Voice—a fairly standard primary line replacement VoIP package that it's been selling for two years, primarily to its cable-connected customers. The new offering will be calling TrueVoice.

But Hsieh and Grasso were much more energized about Line Powered Voice, a package EarthLink will be marketing to its DSL-connected customers. Currently under trial in the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, and Dallas, LPV is, as the name suggests, powered by the telco copper like a standard wireline phone, so it is not vulnerable to power outages. Furthermore, 9-1-1 service functions on LPV just as it does over the PSTN.

"Your phones work just the same," said Tom Hsieh. "You plug them into the same jacks and you don't need adaptors. It all happens at the CO," he concluded. LPV is slated for release in the fourth quarter of this year.

So, why all this telephony activity at EarthLink? Why now? The company sees a rapidly transforming communications landscape out there. The grip of the telco monopolies is going to loosen, and others will be able to grab a piece of that market—if they're properly positioned.

Jerry Grasso suggested that with its customer base of 1.5 million broadband connected households, and a nationwide broadband footprint, that EarthLink is poised to be able to cash in on the country's move to VoIP. And it won't be just phone calls. "In the future, we won't be looking at SBC, Verizon, or EarthLink, etc. as phone providers. We'll look at them as total communications companies. That's where we're headed," he concluded.

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