Linksys, Netgear to Offer VoIP at Home

Home routers have long been only useful to computers, acting as a “splitter” for the broadband connection (DSL or cable modem) so it can be shared by all the PCs. Soon, however, you’ll be able to plug in your phone and use that same broadband connection to make cheap phone calls.

Today, two of the leaders in home networking equipment, Netgear and Linksys (a division of Cisco Systems ), both announced plans to build phone jacks into wired and wireless equipment. Those jacks will provide an instant link to the commercial voice over IP network run by Vonage of Edison, N.J.

“Before, [to use Vonage, users] had to purchase a Motorola device, which we’ll still carry,” says Matt Deatrick, Vice President of Retail Channel Sales for the telephony company. “These products from Netgear and Linksys are a compliment to that.”

Phone calls placed over a phone plugged into these new products will travel over the Internet before being switched to standard lines, usually at a cost well below what the phone companies charge. For residential customers, Vonage starts at a rate of $14.99 per month for 500 minutes of calls in the U.S. and Canada, going up to $29.99 per month for unlimited local and long distance calling. Businesses pay a little more.

Linksys will initially offer just two products to work with Vonage, both wired: the Phone Adapter with 2 Ports for Voice-over-IP (model PAP2, $49.94), which plugs into an existing router; and the Broadband Router with 2 Phone Ports (model RT31P2, $79.94). The latter unit also includes a three-port Ethernet switch for PC connectivity.

These two products are now available at Staples, which is reselling Vonage services nationally. Staples has 1,200 locations in the U.S. They’ll also be offering rebates on the products.

Eventually, Linksys will offer a wireless-enabled 802.11g router, also with two phone ports (model WRT54GP2).

Netgear, meanwhile, will first have an 802.11g router with two voice ports and a built-in three-port Ethernet switch, followed by a two-port telephone adapter that will plug into any other router (and acts as a router itself, for those who don’t have one — it’ll have one Ethernet port). Model numbers and pricing were not announced, but they’re expected by early October 2004.

Netgear and Vonage previously worked together back in January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, providing Vonage-based voice calling out of a show-floor booth.

The Netgear products are being made with chips from Texas Instruments for support of the VoIP and WLAN aspects. Vonage and TI have been technology partners since January of this year.

Obviously, the Vonage branding on products isn’t exclusive to one vendor, nor is the hardware manufacturer’s deal with Vonage.

“You can assume [Vonage] won’t be our only VoIP provider partner,” says David James, Director of Product Management for Broadband Services at Netgear. However, he says co-branding of products for residential VoIP at this stage is a necessity, much like it has been with cellular phone providers and handset manufacturers. That way, the companies can offer discounts and extra services like caller ID, voice mail, etc.

Vonage’s Deatrick points out that all of the announced products will require a wired phone, or a cordless phone with a wired base station. In other words, it has to be a phone with a standard RJ-11 plug that goes into the phone port. Both ports can be used at the same time — but there is a charge for activating the second port, which will have a different phone number from the first. After activation, both ports can be used simultaneously, and will be charged under the single Vonage account.

In April, Vonage announced it was working on a Wi-Fi handset for its service, but has not announced specifics. However, Deatrick says the implication of having the Vonage service built in to wireless routers is “the way Wi-Fi phones will work — you’ll not only be able to use [the handset] to access the service from your existing home network, but also from any hotspot that gives you authorization.”

James says Netgear is also working on a Wi-Fi handset that could be used with its Vonage router. The company is currently optimizing the battery life to get adequate standby and talk time. However, he feels the “larger market” for VoIP at home is currently for those with standard, inexpensive, and ubiquitous cordless phones that can use the Vonage ports. The market, according to In-Stat/MDR, is expected to almost triple between the end of this year and next, to 1.5 million users.

Meanwhile, competitors like Pulver, Viper Networks, and BroadReach are all already offering some form of Wi-Fi phone handset with their similar services. Plus, the competition is quickly heating up as big names like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon
are launching residential VoIP services.

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