Vonage Eyes Wi-Fi: Part II

It’s not just the VoIP giants that are interested in using Wi-Fi hotspots, but folks in the epicenter of wireless activity. For example, take Portland, Ore.’s Personal Telco Project.

Vonage “is completely locked-down,” scoffs Nigel Ballard, spokesman for the community-based Wi-Fi group which takes a more open approach — namely, that Wi-Fi (and thus voice-over-hotspots) should be free.

Ballard says Personal Telco “hopes to cover Portland” with a cloud of free wireless connectivity.

Personal Telco made news with its first step toward that goal: offering free voice-over-hotspot phone calls from Urban Grind, a local café. Ballard says the number of locations offering it has since grown to three.

While the service uses the Free World Dialup (FWD) network with 90 percent reliability, it is moving to Asterisk , an open-source gateway to the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS.)

IpKall now allows FWD users to register for a free Washington State phone number that is then connected to a FWD account. The service gives VoIP users another way to access POTS.

The group is using the Grandstream IP phone from Taiwan. Its “perfect for the home,” says Ballard. The phone plugs into a computer’s Ethernet port.

The concept of voice-over-hotspot is “disruptive,” says Ballard, using one of those marketing terms meaning something that is new and likely to change the current technological landscape. Naturally, such descriptions bring out the deep-pockets.

Intel , the chip-making goliath interested in anything that might propel sales of its Wi-Fi Centrino chipset, is investigating what’s going on in Portland.

Portland was named the Most Unwired City in Intel’s first annual list of wireless-friendly U.S. areas, but slipped to number five this year. However, the surveyor for the list, Bert Sperling, the president of Sperling’s Best Places, says Portland still the leader in overall public access nodes for Wi-Fi.

Just how unwired Portland has become is seen in a story Ballard tells of a homeless man. Although living under a bridge, the man uses the city’s extensive network of publicly-accessible power outlets and Internet access points (and an old Toshiba laptop) to remain connected.

VoIP, once relegated to people making poor-quality phone calls from the home computers using 300-baud modems, is now undergoing a makeover thanks to the popularity of broadband Internet connections. Now it is Wi-Fi’s turn to move beyond simply being a wireless way to connect to the Internet to serving as another nail in the coffin of that traditional corded telephone.

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