With Viper, Talk is Cheap
May 12, 2004
As VoIP and WLANs continue to collide, the marketplace of players like Viper are setting out to prove that inexpensive calls over hotspot connections are the way to go.
With the advent of relatively low-cost Wi-Fi IP phones that can be used to make calls from hotspots -- or any Internet-linked Wi-Fi network -- the red hot wireless LAN industry is converging with the even hotter VoIP industry. To keep score, you're going to need to know the VoIP players.
Here's one to watch: Viper Networks, a publicly traded San Diego company that manufactures and sells VoIP equipment and offers VoIP services over a worldwide IP network that it (for the most part) owns.
Viper's latest product, due to begin shipping in mid-May, is a voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) phone. Final pricing had not been set at time of writing, but company CEO Ron Weaver says the phone will sell for under $180.
It's a single-mode Wi-Fi phone -- it can't do cellular calls as some recently announced products will. It will require the user to have an account on Viper's VoIP service, and to have access to a Wi-Fi network connected to the Internet to use it. That means you may pay twice to make calls. Can that really be very economical?
Weaver says absolutely, because his company offers long distance rates consistently below three cents a minute even to out-of-the-way places.
"I'd wager with you that if you took T-Mobile's [Wi-Fi hotspot] service for one month, even if you only made one call using the Wi-Fi phone every day, the calls would still cost well under what it would cost anywhere else [i.e. with any other long distance provider,]" Weaver says.
Of course, other VoIP service providers, while their offshore calling rates may be higher than Viper's, offer bundles with unlimited long distance within North America, which would make calling from a hotspot even cheaper.
Weaver claims the phone can easily be configured to log on automatically to subscribed Wi-Fi services and, like any Wi-Fi-enabled device set up to continually scan for networks, it will beep to let you know when a network is available and display a list on its screen of available networks from which to choose.
Weaver says the phone will work with any Wi-Fi network that supports industry standard SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) -- which means virtually all commercial networks.
Will customers actually want to make VoIP calls from hotspots, though? Weaver, nothing if not an enthusiast, is absolutely convinced they will, that it will be big business.
"You wouldn't ask," he says, "if you could be with me in London or Paris or Kuala Lumpur when I go into an Internet café and pull out my notebook and start making calls [on the Viper network using the company's USB vPhone].""You should see the crowd form, with people asking, 'Can I call my girlfriend,' 'Can I call my Mom?' It lights their hair on fire. Now can you see if someone walked in with a Wi-Fi phone? Jaws would drop."
However optimistic Weaver may be, the effectiveness and popularity of the Wi-Fi phone remain to be seen. Even without it, though, Viper is an interesting company.
It was founded in 1999, issued an IPO (Initial Public Offering) in 2000 and now has 14 million shares in float and 100 million authorized. Most -- 64 percent -- are owned by the company's officers, but Viper has 3,820 individual share holders.
The stock, which trades on the over the counter (OTC) stock exchange has been trending down in recent weeks, and the company has yet to publish current financial information.
Weaver says it has over 11,000 customers for its VoIP service worldwide. This is small potatoes, though, compared to better established players like Vonage, which has 135,000 lines in service and continues to add more than 20,000 per month.
Viper is focusing more on offshore markets. It has been building its network by acquiring VoIP companies with facilities in place in various parts of the world. It currently has 16 network Points Of Presence (POPs) in Europe, 13 in Asia, and it's still growing.
"That's why our rates are so ridiculously low," Weaver says.
The company's other hardware offerings set it somewhat apart from the VoIP pack. The $55 vPhone is certainly appealing. It's a cellular size handset that plugs into a USB port and lets users make calls on the Viper network from any Internet-connected PC.
The phone's strength, Weaver says, is its built-in digital signal processing (DSP) electronics, especially the adaptive jitter buffer, which adjusts packet buffering in response to network conditions to ensure an optimal balance between voice quality and call latency.
The technology is built in to all of Viper's products, he notes, including the new Wi-Fi phone. "It's why our network always sounds crystal clear," Weaver says. "It's why we offer a money-back guarantee, that it will sound crystal clear."
Viper also has a $90 USB phone adapter into which you can plug any conventional phone, including 2.4GHz cordless phones. Still to come are a LAN VoIP adapter that will allow business customers to plug in multiple phones and a full IP PBX.
Its still the early stages of this market and Viper is only one of the first handful of vendors to bring out a low-cost Wi-Fi phone. That if nothing else makes it worth watching.