Broadvoice Takes The “Limits” Off “Unlimited”

The Massachussetts-based VoIP service provider bucks the industry trend by sharing configuration settings with its customers, allowing use of its $19.95/mo. unlimited plan with virtually any SIP device.

BroadVoice, a Lowell, MA-based residential/SoHo Voice over IP service provider, has become the first major broadband telephone company to share its configuration options for unlimited nationwide calling plans with its customers.

The bold step allows customers to use BroadVoice's $19.95/mo. unlimited service with virtually any SIP-capable telephone device, including analog adaptors, IP phones and telephone exchange systems such as the popular open-source Asterisk PBX.

Broadvoice CEO David Epstein says simple business factors prompted the company to allow open use of its unlimited services.

“There are more than 2 million Cisco phones out there,” said Epstein. “Why would I not want to serve that market, or the asterisk market, or the soft-phone market?”

Epstein adds that allowing end users to provide their own device significantly reduces the company's customer acquisition costs.

“Every VoIP company that provides a device to its customers, and that includes us, is subsidizing the cost of that adaptor,” Epstein said. “It's in our interest for people to use their own.”

While the VoIP industry is in its infancy, Epstein says, it is necessary for many service providers to package services with the hardware a customer needs. But he adds that, “ultimately, the industry will be driven by individual choice and people will choose their own tools.”

Because VoIP service providers base their prices for unlimited calling plans on phone usage patterns in typical home and small business settings, most keep the configuration options, or, more specifically, the SIP credentials, hidden from their customers. This makes it virtually impossible to use any device with the service that is not directly provisioned by the provider.

New customers to a service such as AT&T CallVantage, Broadvox Direct, Packet8, VoicePulse, Vonage and others, typically receive a “locked” analog telephone adaptor with the service. The customer has physical possession of the device, but password protection prohibits access to the unit's configuration settings.

The service providers' fear is that paying customers can share those credentials with others who can use the customer's unlimited plan to make their own calls. This could potentially drive up usage of the account to well above average patterns, and become a money loser for the provider.

“There is always a risk of fraud” says Jeffery Williams, CIO of Broadvox. “Our responsibility is to mitigate that risk as much as reasonably possible. Revealing information such as the SIP credentials is, in my opinion, an excessive risk.”

A user signing up for the first time with BroadVoice on the provider's web page is presented with a choice of receiving a Sipura SPA-1000 from the company, or “I will use my own device (B.Y.O.D.).” If the BYOD option is selected, the user chooses from among six separate devices (four analog telephone adaptors and two IP telephones), as well as an option for a generic device.

If the customer selects a generic device, BroadVoice emails the customer the configuration settings to be entered with the device. This allows the customer to use any SIP device, including any IP Phone or terminal adapter that supports SIP, soft phones such as SJPhone or X-Ten Pro, and even the Asterisk Open-Source PBX.

Epstein says that even users who choose from one of the pre-selected devices on the company's web site will be provided with the account's configuration settings on request.

“The risks [of fraudulent use] are there,” admits Epstein. “Each provider needs to make its own business decisions. We find that we get more with honey than we do with a stick.”

So how does BroadVoice prevent its users from openly sharing their credentials with others? They don't.

Instead, the company has come up with an innovative way of ensuring that users don't abuse the open credential system. According to Epstein, in addition to monitoring usage patterns to look for suspect activity, which many providers do, BroadVoice will also charge the end-user 3.9 cents per minute if more than one outbound call is active using the same set of SIP credentials (except in the case of a three-way call).

“The subscriber is responsible for any charges made with their SIP credentials, which should reduce the risk of credential sharing,” Epstein said.

In addition, only one SIP device is allowed to ”register” for incoming calls. The first device/soft client to register with the network will receive incoming calls, others devices will not. This, Epstein said, should further inhibit credential sharing.

Epstein believes that open credentials and other unique features, such as “Shared Line Appearance,” sets BroadVoice apart from both traditional phone companies and the rest of the VoIP service pack.

“By embracing the power of the SIP standard, we are giving the end user more control over their communications,” Epstein said. “We don't want to just be another phone company clone.”

Epstein acknowledged that providing generic SIP access could potentially add a support burden, but quickly added that the company is prepared to take that on.

Fortunately for BroadVoice, devices that speak SIP generally interoperate well, greatly simplifying customer support.

“Because SIP is based on easy-to-understand and easy-to-implement standards, SIP products are incredibly interoperable out of the starting gate,” says Joel Snyder, Senior Partner at IT consultancy Opus One. “This gives users, from SOHO to enterprise, the flexibility to pick the best product for their needs and not be tied into a single vendor.”

BroadVoice's “Shared Line Appearance” allows multiple SIP clients to register and receive incoming calls.

The feature, which the company charges $3.95 per device for in addition to a $9.95 setup fee, allows customers to have various devices in differing places, each able to make and receive phone calls through the same service. For example, a customer can install separate Sipura devices on an office network and a home network. Each device would have the same phone number. The same service can also be installed on the WiSIP cellular phone the company sells, allowing a customer to receive calls when in a supported WiFi “hot-spot.”

“We are proud of our Shared Line Appearance feature,” says Epstein. “It further differentiates us from other providers.”