The End Of The Home Phone As We Know It

Since its invention, the analog home phone has been relegated to a rather staid role, simply enabling voice communication between individuals. While features such as voice mail and cordless models have added new capabilities to the phone, the phone never deviated beyond its basic role. But now as several wireless networking vendors are unveiling new SOHO-focused VoIP phones in an attempt to capture a piece of the multi-billion dollar home phone market, the home phone is being completely reenvisioned.

Slide Show: The End Of The Home PhoneAs We Know It

For Jim Wilson, president and CEO of Lake Forest, Il.-based integrator AllSmart Solutions, which installs home automation, networking and theater systems, the new attention of networking vendors on home VoIP is encouraging. As the former head of a top networking VAR (he was a founder of AllTech Data Systems, a multimillion Cisco Systems Gold business Partner), Wilson would love to install VoIP systems in customers' homes, but is severely limited by the technology.

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For example a customer recently requested a full wireless network and VoIP system in his new high-end home. To provide the range to fill the large property and the scrambled communication the owner requested, Wilson chose a corporate VoIP system from Avaya. While the system met these requirements, its aesthetics, feature set and capabilities are designed for business users and so were out of place in the home. The owner was disappointed.

"If your home is a wireless site, you can have phone service anywhere [through VoIP]. That's what appealed to him," Wilson said. "What didn't appeal is some of the features in commercial telephone systems that are not inherent in residential. He was stuck with a commercial set because that's what there is."

Thankfully wireless vendors are hearing the call and have begun rolling out SOHO-focused VoIP products with beefed-up feature sets.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Netgear is pushing hard with two product lines targeting both the home and SOHO market, said Prasad Shroff, product line manager for the company's line of Skype phones. The company's SPH101 Skype WiFi Phone allows users to make Skype calls over any wireless network. Since the phone uses standard Skype service, callers can make free calls to other Skype users, or use the SkypeOut service to make calls to non-Skype users for a fee.

In January the company launched the Dual-Mode Cordless Phone with Skype (SPH200D). The SPH200D is a dual-mode cordless phone, so users can make calls either via Skype or via a traditional land line. The phone uses the 1.9GHz band for its cordless service to avoid interference from WiFi networks, and up to four phones can connect to a single base station.

"Our goal is to eventually replace all the home phones with this phone," Shroff said. "I see the market moving more towards this kind of technology, replacing the home phone completely."

The SPH200D includes a variety of useful features, including a speakerphone, intercom, conference calling and secure communication. Netgear is working with Skype to add new features to the phone, including Skype chatting, speed dial and voice mail. They're also planning to offer individualized contact lists, so each member of a family will be able to have their own phone lists which could be accessed from any handset in a home. The next generation of the phone with the new features should be out later this year, Shroff said.

Linksys has similar plans to use VoIP technology to redesign the home phone. The Irvine, Calif.-based vendor offers its own Skype phone, the WIP320, as well as a dual-mode cordless phone, the Linksys CIT310. The CIT310 includes Yahoo Messenger With Voice service, which provides VoIP functionality and access to Yahoo's other services. For example, Yahoo Local search functionality is built into the phone, so a user could easily search for a local business and dial its phone number directly. The phone also provides access to RSS feeds, so a user could receive information such as weather or traffic conditions directly on their phone "It's these little things. The light goes on in peoples' head when they see that we're bringing Internet content to the phone," said Sherman Scholte, Linksys director of product management. "[Service providers] want to offer more than what you can get with old world telephone networks. This requires vendors like Linksys to come out with feature rich, useful devices that really add lot of value for the consumer than what they're getting with old world telephones today."

The company also offers its Linksys Voice System (LVS) business class VoIP phone, which is sold through VARs and VoIP service providers and is targeted at small businesses. The LVS line includes features such as integrated presence-based directory, shared line appearance, paging, intercom and search. The company is adapting the LVS' features for the home, and will offer a new Broadband Communications System based on it later this year.

"When you think about what you can do as a family with a multi-line phone system that integrates VoIP it will be clear [to customers] that having a broadband communication system in the house will allow them to really see the true benefits of a voice system that they couldn't have with existing old world cordless phone systems," Scholte said.

D-Link, Fountain Valley. Calif. is taking home VoIP in a whole different direction: out of the home. Later this year the company plans to start selling its V-Click GSM/Wi-Fi Mobile Phone. The V-Click is a dual-band phone that will allow users to switch between WiFi and cellular networks, so the phone can be used at home or on the road. The phone will feature tri-band GSM access (900/1800/1900 Mhz) and will accept SIM cards from cellular service providers, said Daniel Kelley, D-Link director of marketing.

In addition to the V-Click, the company also offers two clamshell-style VoIP phones that can connect wirelessly to any SIP-based VoIP Provider or a PBX. The company sells wireless broadband routers that automatically give priority to VoIP calls on a network, as well as a Skype phone adapter that allows standard telephones to plug into Skype service

D-Link is working with integrators to create bundles of products and service to sell into homes and small businesses.

"We're committed to bringing VoIP technology to the SOHO and SMB, and are trying to enable channel partners along the way to make money and offer cost savings to customers," Kelley said.

HP is also getting into the market with its Voice Messenger. The product is a dual mode phone offering cellular and VoIP access, in addition to integrated e-mail access and a camera. Watch a CRN Test Center review of the product.

As the vendors put their focus on home VoIP, it will not only change the face of the home phone, but it will also open new opportunities for integrators to install and support VoIP systems. All that is good news for integrators such as Wilson.

"As more and more homes are becoming WiFi sites, if we can do wireless access and if a phone system can ride on the same network, it becomes a very viable system," Wilson said.