DiVitas Test Drive

Divitas loaned me a Nokia E71 to try out with their mobile unified communications solution hosted by Sawtel. It’s a very nice phone – looks good, feels good in the hand. It’s also the best-sounding cell phone experience I have ever had, and that’s thanks to DiVitas. All cellular service providers use technology that sacrifices sound quality for increased carrying capacity. By squeezing down the bandwidth used by a call they can fit more calls into each cell, and get by with fewer cell towers, saving money. The standard codec around most of the world is GSM, and it’s the reason that cell calls can never sound as good as landline calls.

But DiVitas uses a Wi-Fi connection for your calls, and they have chosen to use the standard land-line codec, G.711. The effect is startling – a little disorienting even; we are so used to the horrible GSM codec that when a cell phone sounds as good as a land-line the subjective illusion is that it sounds much better.

This is one of the reasons that the type of voice over Wi-Fi solution offered by DiVitas is way better than the one offered by the telco industry, called UMA. UMA uses the GSM codec even over Wi-Fi connections.

But DiVitas didn’t stop with the sound quality. DiVitas has done an excellent job in several other technical areas. The fundamental technology of fixed mobile convergence is the ability to hand off a call in progress from the cellular network to the Wi-Fi network and vice versa.

This is very challenging, and it is an area where DiVitas claims to lead. So the first thing I did after turning on the phone was to make a call to check it out. I didn’t need to look at the on-screen indicator to know that the call was running over my office Wi-Fi network. The sound quality (did I mention this before?) was superb. So I walked out of range of the WLAN and sure enough the call handed over to the cellular network without dropping. There was a brief interlude of music and the call continued. Going back into the WLAN coverage area the handoff was completely seamless, perceptible only by the improvement in call quality as it moved from the cellular to the WLAN network.

Superior sound quality and seamless handover, while impressive to an engineer who knows what’s entailed, are not really sexy to regular users – it’s just a phone behaving like you would expect. DiVitas takes it to the next level by overcoming another technical challenge, delivering a polished, well thought-through, feature rich and well integrated user interface on the phone.

Actually, the DiVitas software client for the handset overcomes two challenges. The technical challenge of integration with the phone’s native software environment, and the design challenges of usability and usefulness. User interfaces are a matter of personal taste; the best are those that don’t get in the way of doing what you want. I disappointed the people at DiVitas by discarding their carefully written instructions and forging ahead by trial and error. Considering the potential consequences of this behavior I got away lightly. Everything worked the way I expected it to, and there were some nice touches, including Skype-like presence icons by the names in the directory.
While we’re on the topic of the directory, one thing that jumps out is the four digit phone numbers.

This is an indicator of yet another set of technical challenges that DiVitas has overcome to deliver their solution, namely integration with the corporate PBX, and presentation of the PBX features through the cell-phone user interface. DiVitas users will actually get a superior experience of the PBX through their cell phone compared to their desk phone. This is because the DiVitas software has a computer industry heritage rather than a telco heritage; it takes advantage of the nice big color screen with features like the presence icons and voice mail presented in an on-screen list like on the iPhone.

So the big news here is that a product has finally caught up with the hype around enterprise Mobile Unified Communications. All my criticisms (DiVitas got an earful) are nitpicking. For me the system worked as advertised, and that’s saying a lot.

White Spaces Heat Up

In my last post I alluded to the techniques by which the TV broadcast industry was resisting the FCC’s exploration of unlicensed use of unused spectrum in the TV bands. These techniques appear to have borne fruit. Representative John Dingell has written to the FCC with some questions that they need to answer before their November 4th meeting that has White Spaces on the agenda.

I hope that Rep. Dingell keeps an open mind on this issue, and studies it sufficiently deeply to form a balanced opinion. I hope the FCC commissioners stick to their guns and argue persuasively for their plans.

White Spaces Videos

I found this “grass roots” video on Google’s Public Policy Blog. That blog also has some interesting posts on related issues by Richard Whitt and Vint Cerf.

Looking at this provoked me to go to YouTube and search for other White Spaces related videos. I was interested to find a coordinated (by Google) effort by the proponents of White Spaces, and on the other side basically nothing – just this incredibly lame video that takes 7 minutes to tell us that microphones are used in sports broadcasting (don’t waste your time watching more than a few seconds – it’s the same all the way through).

It’s odd that the main opponents of Whitespaces (NAB and MSTV) haven’t put rebuttal videos on YouTube yet, and even odder that they haven’t found a need to present any more thoughtful analyses of the issue, equivalent (but presumably opposite) to those of Chris Sacca or Tim Wu. Instead, I have the impression that their strategy rests on the two prongs of public fear-mongering and bare-knuckled political lobbying.

Green light for White Spaces

The eagerly awaited White Spaces test report of the Office of Engineering and Technology of the FCC came out on Wednesday. The operational paragraph in the Executive Summary reads:

We are satisfied that spectrum sensing in combination with geo-location and database access techniques can be used to authorize equipment today under appropriate technical standards and that issues regarding future development and approval of any additional devices, including devices relying on sensing alone, can be addressed.

It is huge that the FCC leaves the door open to devices relying on sensing alone, because even Google had begun to back off from this idea.

As expected, the report is a little more enthusiastic about fixed wireless Internet access, the kind of use advocated by the IEEE 802.22 working group, than it is about the personal and portable use advocated by Microsoft and Google, among others:

It will… allow the development of new and innovative types of unlicensed devices that provide broadband data and other services for businesses and consumers without disrupting the incumbent television and other authorized services that operate in the TV bands. The Commission is considering whether to also allow “personal/portable” WSDs to operate in the TV spectrum.

I have been following the White Spaces saga for some time (click on the “White Spaces” tag below, and the links to the right of this column); it is a great idea in theory, and if it turns out to work as hoped, the concept could eventually be extended across much more spectrum, leading to a nirvana of effectively unlimited cheap wireless bandwidth.

The commissioners plan to discuss White Spaces at their November 4th meeting.

Verizon’s basic VoIP patents ruled invalid

Back in 2007, Verizon sued Vonage over three basic VoIP patents, and Vonage ended up settling for $120 million. It was a complicated story. Three US patents were involved: 6,104,711, 6,282,574 and 6,359,880. Verizon won that case, and was awarded $58 million plus a 5.5% royalty on Vonage’s future business. Vonage appealed, and the appeals court vacated the $58 million damages award and the 5.5% royalty. But it was on a minor point:

We hold that the district court did not err in its construction of disputed claim terms of the ’574 and ’711 patents. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of infringement with respect to those claims. However, we hold that the district court improperly construed one of the disputed terms in the ’880 patent, and accordingly vacate the judgment of infringement with respect to the ’880 patent and remand for a new trial… We vacate in its entirety the award of $58,000,000 in damages and the 5.5% royalty and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

But the case never went back to the district court! Verizon and Vonage had settled before the verdict, and under the terms of the settlement the verdict triggered a $120 million payment from Vonage to Verizon. Vonage went on to settle similar patent issues with AT&T for $39 million and Sprint for $80 million.

This year Verizon sued Cox on similar issues in the same court, Judge Claude Hilton’s court in the Eastern Virginia Federal District. This time Verizon lost. The jury found the claims of the ‘711 and ‘574 patents to be invalid, and Cox not guilty of infringing the others. Here is my summary of the claims that were found to be invalid:

US patent 6,104,711:
Claim 1 – A DNS (or similar) server translating an address based on a condition
Claim 3 – Like claim 1, where the condition is the status of an endpoint
Claim 11 – Like claim 1, where the condition is a query of an endpoint

US patent 6,282,574:
Claim 5 – Like 711.1, where the server returns a phone number (but no condition is involved)
Claim 6 – Like 574.5, where the server returns a phone number plus an IP (or similar) address

Presumably Verizon will appeal, but to this layman they seem unlikely to win. Their previous victory over Vonage was pyrrhic; the definitions returned by the Markman hearing in that case and the reasoning of the appeal court ruling broadened the scope of the patents to the extent that they encompassed a ton of prior art, as you probably expected when you saw the claim summaries above.

There are numerous patents covering VoIP, and numerous patent holders wanting a slice of the pie. James Surowiecki wrote a characteristically good piece on this type of situation in the New Yorker in August.