Softswitch Inventor Prescribes Patent Reform

Because everything to do with Vonage seems to be headline news lately, the routine call termination agreement the beleaguered provider signed with VoIP Incorporated a few weeks ago thrust the Orlando, FL-based consumer and wholesale communications company into the news as well.

But VoIP Inc is interesting in its own right, not least because of its outspoken CTO Shawn Lewis.

Lewis has been in the VoIP space a long time. A decade ago he wrote the patent for the first softswitch and SS7 gateway while at Xcom Technologies. These patents were subsequently bought by Level3 and made public.

He subsequently started Caerus — now a subsidiary of VoIP Inc — a CLEC that provides wholesale communications services. He’s watched VoIP grow from “hobbyist” to mainstream technology, “with a lot of Vonage’s help,” he adds.

Technology wasn’t what attracted Lewis to VoIP. The appeal was money.

In the mid-1990s, Lewis owned a dial-up ISP. “With telecom deregulation, we realized that if we were a phone company we could collect so much more per minute for phone calls.”

On a long flight, Lewis and his partner discussed the costs of becoming a phone company. “To implement it, we’d need a physical switch in each city,” he recalls. “We were looking at about $14 million for each city.

“I thought: if we could use modem banks as telephony switches, we wouldn’t need intermediate switches. We started working on a software application for communicating with telephone systems using modem banks because they had DSPs. That’s when Level 3 stepped in and bought those patents.”

With his background, Lewis has insight into both sides of today’s patent fights. (In fact, VoIP Inc recently contacted several companies it believes are infringing on its click-to-call patents. The company says it hopes to resolve this amicably.)

Lewis isn’t shy about weighing on the Verizon/Vonage patent lawsuit.

There’s a cost to developing intellectual property, he says, and it should be protected. However, “if you’re going to enforce patent rights you should have a use for them. There should be practice and use analysis to patent awarding.

“Why didn’t Verizon enforce the patent before,” he continues. “Instead of waiting until the peak moment to jump into the market and rape everybody. Now, because there’s a threat of competition you see people trying to put a choke hold on the business.”

In addition, Verizon has opened a Pandora’s box that won’t be easily closed.

“I can guarantee somewhere out there exists a patent that pre-dates Verizon’s,” he says. “Probably 20, 25 people will stand up and say they have patents. It’s going to be a mess. A lot of people are going to be afraid to enter this field.”

Part of the problem is the nature of these patents, according to Lewis.

’If I asked you to look at a circle and a square, everyone could tell me the difference. But that’s not the case with these Internet integration patents. Here we’re talking about [process and use] technology where interpretation is different for every person.

“There needs to be a high level review of how we look at patents,” he adds. “There needs to be a new set of rules.”