The first consumer Wi-Fi phones are a little like dancing bears. You’re so disarmed by the fact that they can do it at all that you’re prepared to overlook their occasional stumble.
Pulver Innovations is the product arm of Pulver.com, Jeff Pulver’s VoIP (Voice over IP) consulting and conference empire and it has one such phone, the $250 WiSIP.
The good news is that the WiSIP phone works, quite well in fact. The bad news: it doesn’t yet work everywhere, and rarely where it would be most useful — at a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The Pulver phone is bigger than the smallest cell phones, but lighter than most. In fact, it feels a little flimsy.
Its 3.6V Lithium battery theoretically provides 3.2 hours of talk time and 21 to 23 hours of standby time. The latter is far less than the best of the current cell phones and PDAs. RIM’s latest Blackberry models boast up to nine days of standby time, for example.
The only way to charge it is by putting it in the included cradle — which, given the standby time, you’ll have to bring along if you take the phone traveling.
The Pulver Wi-Fi phone is built around Session Initiated Protocol (SIP), a signaling protocol for Internet telephony and instant messaging. The protocol initiates call setup, routing and authentication on IP networks. SIP compliance is a good thing in a Wi-Fi phone. It means the phone is compatible with most WLANs. Unfortunately, it does not guarantee you can use it anywhere. To work, the phone needs to associate with a local Wi-Fi network, then log on to a VoIP server.
The problem at this point is not finding a compatible VoIP service, it’s finding a WLAN that will authenticate the phones. This product only works for sure on home or office Wi-Fi networks where you can control the authentication process or at Wi-Fi hotspots that require no authentication — which is to say, fewer and fewer of them.
The problem, says Pulver spokesperson Stu Milberg, is getting Wi-Fi hotspot operators to agree to authenticate WiSIP phones. The technology is there to do it, he says. Operators could authenticate by MAC address, for example. The question is whether they want to authenticate the phones.
Operators may be asking themselves, a) do I want a lot of relatively high-bandwidth devices hogging capacity on my network, especially when, b) somebody else is getting all the additional revenue for the telephone service.
Pulver is talking to major commercial operators and expects to announce some soon that will authenticate the phones. The company is hoping that pressure from subscribers wanting to use Wi-Fi phones will force operators to find ways to accommodate them.
In the meantime, you may be able to use the phone at some free hotspots that require no authentication. Milberg has used his at airports and convention centers, he says. I found no hotspots in my area that would authenticate the phone.
Until the hotspot operators get onside, the Pulver WiSIP phone — and others like it, such as Viper Networks‘ WiFi vPhone, which comes from the same factory as the Pulver product and, according to a Viper spokesperson, is virtually identical to it — make very expensive cordless phones for around the home or office. However, with this handset, you’re not paying a telco for long distance.
The second part of the equation, getting the phone to work with a VoIP service, turns out to be somewhat easier. Pulver has the WiSIP phone working with several services, including the company’s own Free World Dialup, as well as commercial services such as VoicePulse, Broadvoice, Net2Phone and Vonage. Broadvoice is marketing the phone from its Web site, as well.
It takes a little effort to set it up for use on these networks, as I discovered. Pulver can ship the phone already configured for the service provider of your choice, but I chose to do it myself to see how difficult it was. The process starts, as with setup for most Wi-Fi devices, by selecting the network mode — usually DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) — for the local network.
You may have to scan for a network and select your network Service Set IDentifier (SSID) and/or input a gateway and subnet mask address. On some networks you may also have to input a wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption key.
This part of the process went fairly smoothly on my home office WLAN. I was able to get the phone to associate with my Netgear Wireless Router. The hard part was correctly configuring the phone’s SIP settings so it would work with Vonage Soft Phone VoIP service.
While the manual that comes with the product gives fairly clear and detailed instructions on how to do this from the phone’s keypad, you can do it far more easily using a computer connected to the same network. You access the phone’s setup screens by surfing to its IP address using a Web browser. If your network has a DHCP server, you’ll need to first select the Information item on the phone’s main menu where you’ll find the IP address the DHCP service has assigned.
The manual failed to make it clear this option was available, and I didn’t find out until later when talking to a Pulver tech support person. My first attempts at configuring the SIP settings involved keying in a lot alpha characters on a telephone keypad — a very tedious process.
Before you can even start, though, you need the service provider to give you some required information – the name or IP address of its VoIP Proxy server and the correct TCP (define) port number. You may also need a separate address or name for the Outbound Proxy server. Even if the two server addresses are the same, you need to input both.
The Vonage technical support agents I talked to had apparently had no experience with SIP phones, but they were able to give me the setting information I needed. The trouble is, it didn’t work.
I called back and a second agent very confidently confirmed the information the first had given. Only after Pulver tech support called Vonage and asked the right questions — a couple of hours into the process — was the issue resolved. Vonage had given me the wrong port number.
This was not a problem with the phone itself, but it does underline the fact that it’s still early days with this technology and not everybody is singing from the same hymnal yet.
On my network, I also had to go into the router’s firewall settings and explicitly permit the phone to have access to the TCP port.
Once all of this was done, the phone worked. It automatically registered on the Vonage server and I was able to make calls — though unlike with wired broadband VoIP services using voice gateways or PC soft phone services, you don’t get a dial tone.
The phone also won’t transmit Dual Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) (define) tones — touch tones — that can be received by some voice mail services, Milberg says. However, I was able to use touch tones to collect my telco voice mail.
In test calls around my small home, connection and voice quality were as good on some calls as with any wired broadband VoIP service from Vonage — i.e. very good indeed. On others, there was some slight echo and some break-up, though little discernible latency. Even at its worst, it was better than a bad cellular connection.
As I moved outside and further from the access point — up to 150 feet away — there was naturally more break-up, but it was still possible to carry on a conversation and voice quality remained good.
On the whole, I was impressed, but I can’t see many takers for a $250 product that only works for sure as a cordless phone in private networks. We’ll see how this plays out in the weeks and months ahead as more Wi-Fi phones come on to the market and pressure builds on hotspot operators to let them on.