Best of Both Telephony Worlds

RTX America may be one of the most important phone hardware companies you’ve never heard of. North American subsidiary of Danish parent RTX, it’s been developing telephony components and products for the past 13 years. But, as Curtis Shmidek, vice president of marketing, put it to, “We’re not typically a brand name; we’re typically the technology inside of other companies’ products—like Panasonic, or VTech. Even products we completely make are generally rebranded by someone else.”

That’s all about to change, as the company recently announced imminent release (early in the next quarter) of the RTX PORTALphone.

A concise description of the PORTALphone’s salient features goes something like this: It is a hybrid, meaning it does both PSTN and SIP-based VoIP calling. It is multi-line, multi-handset capable, able to support multiple phone numbers and up to three simultaneous conversations. It is a cordless system using powerful, new-to-North America DECT 6.0 wireless technology. Finally, it is a platform for the delivery of web-based information and other services.

Designed primarily for consumer use, the PORTALphone has its roots in a partnership between RTX and Skype that resulted in last year’s release of the hybrid, USB-connected DUALphone, that actually made use of the Skype soft client on a PC.

But another vector of the PORTALphone’s genesis was a desire on the company’s part to emerge from the shadows to some degree and produce products that “moved up the value chain,” according to Schmidek. “As we were doing the DUALphone, which required a PC, we realized that customers would be interested in having a VoIP phone that didn’t require the PC to be on. So we began defining a device that required LAN connectivity,” Schmidek told VoIPplanet.

“As we saw IPSPs increasingly competing on price,” Schmidek went on, “we thought ‘What additional value can we bring to a cordless product that takes it beyond just voice?’ And that was the concept of what we originally coined as ‘push’ content.” The idea was to let customers decide what information they wanted to see—weather, traffic, sports, etc.—and pipe it in to them via the worldwide web.

While developers at RTX were ‘defining’ such a product, one of those wild twists of fate occurred. They met some folks from a company named 2BeQ (now Casabi) at a trade show. In a courtesy follow-up meeting, they discovered they were both working on exactly the same concept. “So, we began a partnership, starting in July or August of 2004, to define what kind of protocols were required to deliver content, what should the form factor of the phone be, etc.,” Schmidek reported—with RTX working on the hardware, Casabi on the service end (see Application-Powered Telephony). That partnership is now about to bear fruit.

What is the point of building in the ability to directly reach the public switched telephone network? After all, we’re moving into the age of VoIP, right? One possible answer is that it wasn’t particularly hard to do. But the answer Curtis Schmidek gives is that it’s about giving customers options.

“If you have a power outage, you go to the PSTN. For 911 calls, the phone can be set up so that it always defaults to PSTN—in case the VoIP provider doesn’t support 911 services. But really, the intention of us putting PSTN in there was not to force the user to eliminate PSTN in his home,” Schmidek explained. He elaborated, pointing out that his home broadband service was DSL, with the carrier in effect forcing him to have a PSTN connection. “So why not keep that number—and use it? It’s just another option,” he said. “Bottom line is we’ve created a flexible product that offers the best of both worlds.”

One of the more intriguing specs for the PORTALphone is the fact that it supports ‘three simultaneous calls.’ Schmidek clarified this somewhat ambiguous point as follows: “Conferenceing capability is built into the product, and built into the infrastructure, but the idea here is three simultaneous SIP registrations and three simultaneous SIP phone calls. Essentially three different telephones.”

In other words, the base station can handle three active calls at the same time—which would, of course, require three handsets. Possible? Actually, the base station can support six handsets, each with its own URI (universal resource identifier, or SIP phone number).

Schmidek elaborated: “It’s like a key system or a small PBX. We wanted to bring a little more value to these products, giving the ability to the service provider to sell multiple subscriptions into a home, but only have to provide one box.”

End users have many choices on how these capabilities are configured. “Say, if you use it as a key telephone system, one phone could answer any line coming in,” Schmidek said. “Or if you wanted to have some privacy, you lock a handset away in your study so the kids can’t get hold of it, and you have your personalized content there—maybe it’s your stock quotes and your contact list, whatever—and your own phone number, so the kids wouldn’t use that line.” Likewise, separate lines could be set up for children—perhaps with weekly minute-usage restrictions. Lots of possibilities.

Pricing and availability
According to RTX the PORTALphone should be available early in the second quarter of 2006, “through select Internet telephony service providers and retail outlets.”

We asked Curtis Schmidek about pricing. The gist of his answer was: “If it were a retail product with high profit margins all round, it would be somewhere in the $250 range,” which we took to mean base station and single handset.

However, he was quick to point out “We do OEM relationships with service providers or other parties who are looking to get to market with a finished product. So, it’s difficult for me to announce a pricing model.” He went on: “We believe that with the combination of voice over IP and personalized content, there will be more motivation [for service providers] to subsidize the product, because there will be a greater potential for service revenue.”

In terms of a more elaborated deployment, with several handsets, Schmidek observed that “the PORTALphone is actually quite cost effective compared to, say, a Wi-Fi handset deployment, since the PORTALphone base station is where the intelligence resides. The handsets are simply thin clients. It makes it pretty cost-effective to deploy multiple handsets in the house, relative to having multiple Wi-Fi handsets, where the intelligence is built into each unit.”

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