Tag Archives: Voice over Internet Protocol

Phones Aren’t About Telephony

Skype is a powerful tool because it’s found its way into the hands of people who need it most — ordinary folk. Now it and the companies that make devices to use Skype on need to understand that it’s not about telephony anymore, if it ever was. It’s about two or more people sharing each others’ presence. Now we need the products to make that happen.

I was chatting with someone last night, a gent in his early 60s from LA, who should have retired but decided to take on one more project, in Hong Kong. He was in two minds about it because it would mean a year away from his wife, but he was persuaded because he knew Skype would keep him in touch. Of course it could be any VoIP tool, but the point here is that Skype was the first to cross the threshold into this market because it was easier (and worked better) than all the others at the time. Now the guy can chat with his wife every night and being apart is bearable and not making him too poor.

But he was still using it as a phone: Call the other person up, chat and then hang up. Had he ever thought about just leaving the line open, I asked him? Why would I do that? he replied. Because it won’t cost you anything, and then you’ll hear the sounds of home, which in a way is what you’re really missing. Your wife banging around in the kitchen, the kids arguing, a dog barking, the sound of the wood pigeon in the garden (OK, that’s more my memory of home than his. Not sure they have wood pigeons in LA.)

I then realised that actually there would be a great line of products here. Wireless devices that you could place around the house, outside, some that are just microphones picking up sound, and others that also serve as speakerphones, so his wife can just wander around and, when she wants to, chat as well. Of course, a Bluetooth headset might do the trick, and maybe there are some wireless handsets that might work. I’ve done a quick search and not found any obvious candidates. Most seem to assume you want to use Skype as a phone. But Skype is not really about phones anymore. It’s about presence — on one side, showing other people whether you’re available, etc, and on the other, allowing you to teleport yourself to the person you’re with without the old restrictions of the phone: cost, the structured nature of phone conversation, having to press a device to your ear.

Manufacturers, it’s true, are beginning to wake up to the idea that we don’t use our devices in the way, or the place, they’re designed for. Take the percushion pillow phone, for example, which finally solves that problem of trying to have a conversation with someone while you’re trying to get to sleep. That’s a good start. Now lets see devices that use sound and vision to make anyone, including my new homesick friend, to really feel they’re home.

Thwarting the VoIP Eavesdroppers

Interesting piece in Intelligence Online (subscription only) which mentions the growth of both software to intercept VoIP traffic, and services to thwart it. Companies mentioned: Amteus [company website] which “has developed secure software for Voice over IP (VoIP) communications but also for e-mail and file swaps.” Amteus basically works by establishing a peer to peer connection and encrypts with a one time key. On the other side of the fence, the article says, are companies “like Israeli firms Nice Systems and Verint as well as France’s Aqsacom, are already marketing solutions to break into and record telephone conversations on the Internet.” [all corporate websites]

An interesting world
 

The Skype Recording Thing

Still looking for the perfect tool to record Skype conversations, I looked and Google and found one of my own posts, done 20 months ago, so I’ve updated it into a list of those programs I can find for both Windows an Macs: the LOOSE wire blog: Recording Skype conversations. This is my current state of mind on the issue:

Quite a few folk have since added their suggestions, out of which I’ve cobbled together the following. I haven’t tried some of these, and to be honest, I’ve still not come across one that completely satisfies me. Problems I’ve encountered are recording latency (where two people’s words overlap with each other on the recording where they didn’t in real life), lack of tweakability of sound levels so the two voices are the same and easy ways to give the resulting files filenames.

Perhaps Tom Raftery, who still has my underpants, can shed some light.

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Press 4 To Give Us All Your Money

I guess it had to happen: phishers are not only trying to snag you by setting up fake banking websites, now they’re trying to snag you by setting up fake switchboards too.

Tim McElligott writes in Telephony Online that scammers “posing as a financial institution and using a VoIP phone number e-mailed people asking them to dial the number and enter the personal information needed to gain access to their finances.” Simply put, the phishers in this case aren’t directing you to a fake website where you enter your password and other data sufficient for them to empty your account; they’re directing you to an automated phone service, where you’d give the same details.

The information comes from Cloudmark (“the proven leader in messaging security solutions for service providers, enterprises and consumers”), which claims in a press release that it has seen two separate such attacks this week:

In these attacks, the target receives an email, ostensibly from their bank, telling them there is an issue with their account and to dial a number to resolve the problem. Callers are then connected over VoIP to a PBX (private branch exchange) running an IVR [an automated voice menu] system that sounds exactly like their own bank’s phone tree, directing them to specific extensions. In a VoIP phishing attack, the phone system identifies itself to the target as the financial institution and prompts them to enter account number and PIN.

As Telephony Online points out, setting up this kind of phone network is easy. “Acquiring a VoIP phone number is about as hard as acquiring an IP address or a domain name,” it quotes Adam O’Donnell, senior research scientist at Cloudmark, as saying. “Phishers figured out how to quickly and fraudulently get that information a long time ago.” An old PC with a voice modem card and with a little PBX software and you’ve got a company’s phone tree which can sound exactly like your bank, O’Donnell says.

This all makes sense. Indeed, we should have seen it coming. It’ll be interesting to see how banks cope with this. Right now their argument has been that if in doubt, a customer should phone them. That no longer is as watertight an option. They could argue that customers should not respond to any email they receive, but that’s also not always true. Banks and other financial institutions need to communicate with customers.

One solution to this is the signature: Postbank last month launched a service where all its emails to customers come with an electronic signature. The only problem with this is that most email clients don’t support the service — only Microsoft Outlook. This is a bit like giving customers a lock that only works on certain kinds of door.

Perhaps banks are just going to have to pick up the phone. If customers are now under threat from automated phone trees maybe the solution is not more technology, but less? A cost the phishers are unlikely to be able to bear would be an actual voice on the other end of the line that sounded familiar and authentic. The only question then would be for the customer to establish the authenticity of the banking assistant.

The End of VoIP?

A provocative (or is it prophetic?) piece  from The Register’s Andrew Orlowski who sees the end of Skype and VoIP:

It’s small, it’s boring and won’t turn any heads – but it probably spells the end of the road for Skype, Vonage and any other hopeful independent VoIP companies. It’s Nokia’s 6136 phone, which allows you to make calls over your home or office Wi-Fi network, as well as on a regular cellular network. UMA, or unlicensed mobile access, is the mobile operators’ answer to the threat of VoIP – and now it’s reality.

UMA, he says, has the edge because in one phone you will be able “to keep one phone number, one handset, and receive one bill at the end of every month.” In the future phone calls at home — whether you’re on your mobile, landline or online — will be free. This is a neat fit because where quality was worst — inside — you will be able to use WiFi.


Got a signal yet?

This is not good news of course, for those of us who saw the interesting lunatics taking over the asylum. Disruptive technology, it turns out, means just that it disrupts the monsters out of their slumber and they finally get it. As Orlowski concludes: “So long then VoIP, and thanks for the free calls.”

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SkypeKiller Or PR Stunt?

Some people, we know, really don’t like Skype. A few people are now building a business on it. Now there’s SkypeKiller (“Your whole network Skype ridden for free”), a French program which will remove all traces of Skype from your network. As its homepage states:

With nearly 200 million downloads and 62 million regular users worldwide, Skype´s IP telephony service has become a real phenomenon.  However use in corporate networks can cause real problems:
* Uncontrollable bandwidth usage
* Uncertainty as to confidentiality
* Potential security flaws
* Productivity issues
* etc …

Thanks, Russell Shaw of ZDNet blogs, who walks us through how to use it. Unfortunately, “SkypeKiller” as a name is much more likely to be assumed to be a program that is better than Skype. And Stuart of Skype Journal reckons it’s more about cheap PR than being a serious tool.
 

Verso Helps Block China Traffic

Verso Technologies has announced its first major deal for its Internet filtering technology — in China. Verso is best known for its high-profile promises to block Skype VoIP traffic, which have raised a few eyebrows, and very little take-up, in the U.S. and Europe. However, clearly this is exactly what the unidentified Chinese mobile carrier wants to do, according to Verso’s press release:

“The trial is representative of the significant opportunities for Verso’s products in the Chinese market, where VoIP is highly regulated and the use of Skype software has been deemed illegal,” said Yves Desmet, senior vice president, worldwide sales, Verso Technologies. “More and more countries are following China’s direction in evaluating the risks associated with the growing popularity of P2P communication such as Skype, due to intense security concerns with the use of this medium for unlawful purposes and its impact on carriers’ revenues and the bottlenecks their networks are experiencing. We believe that this is just the beginning of a tremendous opportunity for Verso.”

VoIP from non-official operators is potentially illegal in China, at least for now, and major telecom operators there have been blocking Skype with some success. But I am not sure Verso’s Desmet is correct in saying “ the use of Skype software has been deemed illegal” . I can find no reference to substantiate that. Is Verso being misleading by saying that, and using phrases such as “intense security concerns with the use of this medium for unlawful purposes” to make it sound like Skype and its ilk are a hotbed of triad and Al Qaeda activity?

More generally, when Verso talks of “security concerns” it’s talking about blocking viruses, illegal content (P2P files etc) and other unwanted nasties, as well as recently aired fears that Skype may have security holes allowing hackers to carry data anonymously. But of course in China “security” carries an extra connotation. VoIP, unlike ordinary telecommunicatons, is hard to monitor, eavesdrop and tap. Is Verso helping China to limit free speech? (No, says Verso, in a piece on Slyck by Thomas Mennecke.)

I’m not quite clear about why a mobile operator would be that interested in this technology. I suppose we’re talking about people using Skype and such like over mobile networks. Still, what is clear is that Verso sees this as the thin end of a big, lucrative wedge:

“We are seeing broad applicability for this type of solution on a global basis by the service provider community, as these potential customers look to preserve and maintain security, comply with regulations, improve their revenue opportunities and optimize their network.”

VoIP for Dial-up?

How well does Voice over Internet work for folks who rely on dial-up?

I’ve not had much luck with Skype — it comes across as crackly, jerky and fenerky (I made up the last word.) A company called NetZero is now offering a VoIP service it says works well for dial-up users:

“We believe consumers should not have to have broadband Internet access in order to enjoy the price savings and feature content of Internet phone calling,” said Mark R. Goldston, CEO of United Online, the company that owns NetZero.

While a broadband connection is still recommended for the best voice quality, NetZero claims that users with a 56k modem would be able to make calls successfully by using the company’s proprietary technology it has created to reduce echo, latency and other issues.

I haven’t tried it yet but I will do. Some folk commenting on the above BetaNews story ask what is the point of VoIP over dialup — if you’re using dialup you’ve got a phoneline already — which is easy to enough to respond to. Just because you have a phone line doesn’t mean you want to be making expensive interlocal or international calls on it.

Anyway, this is potentially good news for folk in the developing world who only have access to dial-up. I’m going to check it out. The only problem, of course, is that NetZero folks can only chat to NetZero folks unless you make a SkypeOut type call.

Shutting Skype Out

Who actually pays for Skype? How about the network operators, who have to put up with all the extra traffic? And what are they doing about it? A piece from VOIP Planet, Keeping Skype @Bay, points to the arrival of products specifically designed to block Skype (and other p2p traffic) from their networks:

Skype is the poster child for such ‘undesirable’ traffic, from the point of view of facilities based network operators, as the VoIP technology provider and its peers bring no network capacity to the party; they essentially piggyback on others’ pipes.

And this is not just a minor nuisance.

Monty Bannerman, president and CEO of Verso, pointed out to VoIPplanet.com that NANOG [the North American Network Operators’ Group] has probes all over the primary backbones. “They’ve been able to measure the rise in peer-to-peer traffic,” Bannerman said. “The last stats I saw—and that was at least a year ago—at that point over 30 percent of the backbone was p2p traffic—and rapidly growing.” This is traffic that brings in not a penny for the carriers whose networks the p2p traffic traverses.

For smaller network operators this is poison, the piece says:

“It’s one thing if you’re just having a rise in certain kind of traffic and its driving more capacity and people are buying bigger pipes from you as a carrier. But if that same traffic is robbing your paid subscriber base, it’s like eating poison every day,” Bannerman said. “There are really two camps here.” Bannerman continued. “There’s the p2p camp that says Skype’s an incredible new thing that everyone loves, but if you’re watching your business model being eroded every day, you’re in the other camp.”

Certainly the company mentioned, Verso, makes no bones about the fact it’s Skype they’re offering to block with their products. In a press release issued on Sept 14 it says of Skype calls:

 However, these calls typically run through multiple carriers’ IP networks and consume large amounts of bandwidth.  This traffic runs outside the traditional carrier revenue generation models and is therefore highly undesirable for them.  Furthermore, carriers currently do not have a feasible way to separately monitor and restrict this type of traffic on their network.  Verso’s new technology would fill this void.

Five days later, in another press release about its new NetSpective 2.0 Enterprise Filtering Technology, it mentions Skype again, aiming at somewhat different concerns:

 Additionally, the application specifically targets and blocks Skype software, which enables users to utilize the Internet to place undetectable and un-monitored voice calls to another end-user running a Skype application, leaving enterprise organizations open to a variety of liabilities and potential virus infections.

That’s interesting. Undetectable and unmonitored calls? What about mobile calls?

What’s also interesting about this is that Verso has its own VoIP product. One can’t help but wonder about the legal and ethical aspects of blocking one VoIP carrier traffic while offering your own product. Indeed, the VOIP Planet article specifically quotes Verso president Monty Bannerman as saying its filtering software could distinguish between certain kinds of traffic, so it “could actually degrade certain types of traffic—or prioritize others.”

I imagine this kind of thing is going to come to center stage as Skype (and competitors) grow. And as the VOIP Planet says, there are regulations about this kind of thing, though they differ from country to country.

[Andy Abramson of VoIP Watch has an interesting take on this debate.]

The Skype Revolution Hits Teaching

I don’t know if this is the first, but it’s certainly an early example of how Skype and other VOIP products are going to create a new form of business: Accessible voice services. An Online Language School Uses Skype to Teach English:

Isle of Man (UK)-based school Telephonenglish.com [not the most elegant of website names, and you have to wonder how the spelling will rub off on students] has committed itself to using Skype VoIP technology to teach English to its global clients. “The quality and the popularity of the Skype VoIP telephony service makes it the obvious choice for our e-learning services,” said Telephonenglish founder Martin Curtis.

Telephonenglish.com was founded in September 2004 to take advantage of cheap internet telephony as a means of teaching English students around the world who are either too isolated, or simply too busy to travel to a traditional language school for classes.

Why Skype?

“The ability to send files during the lesson, as well as using the text-based chat facility during the e-lesson, makes Skype a perfect platform for affordable online learning,” said Martin Curtis.

So who is Telephonenglish.com? It’s four full-time teachers, and as far as I can figure out from the websites, students get emailed the lessons in advance, download Skype and then will get called by the teacher at a booked time.