Ooma: Catching up.

A year ago, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Ooma was talking about riding coattails.

The provider of residential VoIP services had just released a suite of tools meant to extend Google Voice into the home phone environment.

In the last few months, the company has bypassed this initial ambition. With an iPhone app, a Bluetooth adapter, and other new features, Ooma says it is ready to stand on its own. “I certainly wouldnít characterize us as trying to build our customer base around [Google Voiceís] users. We see it as just one more way to connect into the media that people use,” said VP of product operations Dennis Peng.

Founded in 2004, Ooma today claims over 100,000 customers. The basic service is free with the purchase of the Ooma Telo, a device that connects home phones to high-speed internet. It sells for between $199 and $249.

In addition to the free plan, users can pay $5 or $10 a month for enriched services that include free international minutes in 70 countries and various discount rates. Thirty to forty percent of users have opted for a paid package, Peng said.

Last week the company introduced new international calling bundles. The three plans include a 1,000 minute deal to 70 countries for $10 per month. With another $10-a-month plan, callers get a bulk discount on certain international calls. A third plan gives Premier users the combined discounts of both plans for $10 a month.

In its most recent hardware enhancement, Ooma has come out with a Bluetooth adapter capable of linking seven mobile phones to the Ooma Telo. Incoming calls on the cell phone can ring the home phone, bringing the home phone into what Peng calls the more relevant sphere.

“The home phone has lost some of its relevance. As a service it doesnít really connect to peopleís lifestyles. Your contact list in on your mobile phone, that is what you are going to use,” he said. In addition to the Bluetooth extension, Ooma also offers a multi-ring function that lets incoming calls ring simultaneously on home phones and cell phones.

Itís with that same concept in mind that Ooma announced its iPhone app this spring. It lets users run Ooma outside the home using an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, via 3G or Wi-Fi. “You have access to your international plans outside your home, as well as the ability to call anywhere in the U.S. for about 2 cents a minute,” Peng said. When the device is used at home, the calls are free.

Using Ooma through the iPhone, itís possible to bypass your usual cellular voice plan, in which minutes can cost a nickel or more, Peng said.

Ooma is working on an Android version of the program to be released later this year, and the company is exploring the possibility of a BlackBerry version, Peng said.

Ooma has an ambitious program in mind, in its effort to merge home and mobile telephony, allowing its phone-to-broadband device to act as a springboard to take its low-cost calling plans outside the home. None of it works, though, if you canít hear the voice on the other end of the line

“We know [poor] voice quality is the primary reason people churn off other Voice over IP services,” Peng said.

To that end, Ooma engineers have brought a couple of nifty technology tweaks to the table in their efforts to ensure a high-quality signal. These enhancements are marketed as Ooma PureVoice.

First, the box has been designed to monitor traffic and snatch away bandwidth from other local devices. Voice packets on the Ooma network get priority against other network activity.

In addition, the company has tackled the challenge of maintaining quality in the face of Internet connections over which it has no control. Itís a problem that plagues VoIP carriers: No matter how good your system may be, youíre still beholden to the quality of a connection operating outside your boundaries.

Oomaís solution is to dynamically adapt for packet loss. The Ooma device keeps a constant watch and when packet loss reaches a certain level, the system automatically increases redundancy. In this way, it can compensate for up to 50 percent packet loss, Peng said.

To further enhance voice quality, Peng said, Ooma plans to launch an HD voice service within the next few months.

Looking ahead, Peng said the company aims to tie all these pieces together and continue adding enhancements in order to craft a solution that meets end-to-end customer needs. “Our mission right now is to build a very complete and cohesive communication solution,” he said.

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