Soft POTS?

Canadian cable provider Vidéotron launches intriguing, feature-rich hybrid phone service that travels with you.

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted Nov 29, 2007
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Vidéotron, the leading cable TV provider in Canada's French-speaking province of Québec, recently introduced Softphone, a unique SIP-based softphone service that promises full POTS functionality and voice and connection quality—plus video calling.

The service, launched October 31, costs existing Vidéotron customers just $20 for unlimited local calling, a handful of popular call management features—call display, voice mail (with the option of e-mail delivery), call waiting, three-way conference calling, call forwarding—and Personal Call Manager software that allows subscribers to manage these features and set up find-me-follow-me routines.

"Local calling," in this context means within the area code, but there's an interesting VoIP-ish twist: All incoming calls from your area code are free (that is, included) regardless of your actual whereabouts, and all outgoing calls to that area code are free—again, regardless of where you happen to be.

Unlike traditional POTS (plain old telephone) service, Softphone can handle up to three calls concurrently, allowing users to switch between calls, leaving two on hold while talking to a third, or conference them all together.

Softphone customers can also use the service anywhere they have Internet access, but Vidéotron only guarantees call quality when they're connected directly to its network. And video calling, despite using standard H.263 technology, only works between Softphone subscribers for now.

The company is selling two GN computer telephony headsets from Jabra to use with the service, including the high-end GN 9330 wireless model, which it's offering at a very good price of $150. Other USB and analog headsets will work as well.

Vidéotron passes about 2.5 million homes in Québec and eastern Canada. With the Softphone service, it is strengthening an already competitive quadruple play. Besides cable television, it also offers local cable-based telephone service and cellular service as an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) reselling service from Rogers Wireless. The company currently has about 570,000 local telephone customers for a 23 percent market share in its operating areas.

"The investment [in the Softphone service] helps us better position ourselves against competitors in the [telephony] market," says Bertrand Hebert, the company's senior manager for telephony. "But also we now have the [SIP] technology that allows us to offer all kinds of other services in the future."

The Softphone service is "layered on top of" the cable telephony service and uses existing infrastructure, Hebert explains. Both are enabled by the softswitch products from Nortel Networks that Vidéotron began installing a year ago. The Nortel technology gives Vidéotron in effect two separate, overlapping, interoperating networks.

"One is a traditional [Nortel] DMS-type softswitch [network]. The other [Softphone] part is purely SIP architecture," explains Softphone product development manager Philippe Wauthy.

"Both sides are talking together and that allows us to create the first softphone service that truly has all those POTS [plain ordinary telephone system] features. You can receive collect calls on Softphone, for example. You can get directory assistance. Any number you can dial on a POTS phone, you can dial on the softphone."

About the only POTS service that does not fully carry over is 9-1-1 emergency calling. Vidéotron offers 9-1-1 on Softphone, but it's limited. Because subscribers can use the service anywhere they have high-speed Internet service, emergency calls are routed first to a center where the caller must provide current location information. This, the company warns, can slow emergency response. 9-1-1 service could also be disrupted by Internet service outages.

It's not possible yet to have a single number that works on both the Softphone and cable telephony service, but that might be possible in the future, Hebert says. Vidéotron does offer a bundled price for customers who want both, though.

The Softphone service uses the same last-mile physical carriage facilities as the company's Internet service, but for customers who also take the Internet service, it has no impact on download or upload speeds. Users can have a video call and two voice calls engaged and continue to work on the Internet with their usual throughput, Wauthy says.

Subscribers download and install Softphone software programmed in C++ rather than the typical small-footprint softphone clients used in other services.

"This is because of the voice quality, which we felt was very critical to the [success of the] service," Wauthy explains. "What we found with Active-X and Java clients is that they're not talking deeply enough to the processor to manage call quality. Our C++-coded software is really accessing the CPU power at a low level that allows great voice quality."

The browser-based Personal Call Manager software is completely separate from the softphone itself. It allows subscribers to set up (for now, limited) find-me-follow-me features. They can have calls ring up to three phones simultaneously or in sequence. There are no scheduling features yet that would allow a subscriber to, for example, set up one ringing sequence for weekdays nine to five and a different one for other times. And no facility for routing calls based on caller ID information.

"We wanted to make it accessible [to] the vast majority of our customers, so we chose to limit the number of routing functions," Wauthy explains. "We're waiting for comments from customers about whether they want more complex call routing features."

The highly-touted video calling feature, which Vidéotron seems to believe will be a major selling point, delivers video in 200x300-pixel window. Calls can be set up at two levels of quality—one that uses 100 Kbps of bandwidth (presumably for use when not connected to Vidéotron's network), the other, 200 Kbps. It's possible to increase the window size but as with most streaming video applications, quality degrades as you increase window size.

The video service only works between two Softphone customers, although Wauthy talks about the possibility of extending connections to customers of SIP peering partners in the future.

Vidéotron is unique as far as we know among cable television players in offering both POTS and softphone services, although Vonage and others among the stand-alone VoIP providers are doing it. It will be interesting to see what kind of customer uptake the Softphone service gets, and whether there will be any cross-fertilization of the two markets—or even cannibalization of the POTS service by Softphone.

Hmm, is that a possibility Vidéotron has considered?

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