Richard Davidson’s desk in his residence room at Ottawa’s Algonquin College looks like any other undergrad’s work space—a casual scatter of books, papers and pens, a telephone. Or is it a telephone? The dark grey appliance, smaller than a textbook, has the familiar handset and numbers. But above them is a glowing five-by-10-cm screen that, just now, is showing the latest weather forecast for the National Capital Region. The firstyear massage-therapy student can also punch up sports and news headlines, a list of his callers or stock reports. “We even have instant high-speed access to the school’s network through the back of the phone,” enthuses Davidson. “It’s absolutely fantabulous.”
The devices in the Ottawa college’s new residence building are not, in fact, telephones at all. Not of the kind that Alexander Graham Bell invented 125 years ago, and the rest of us have been using, essentially unchanged, ever since. Those phones send voices, transformed into electrical or optical frequencies, over dedicated circuits. These devices do it the way the Internet moves data: chopping the voice into bits, sending them in packets by different routes to another phone, then reassembling them into a credible imitation of the original. To phone company folk, this is the biggest leap forward since glass fibre. To the rest of us, these Internet protocol—
or “IP”—phones promise cheaper, clearer calls, fewer numbers to remember and less hassle and intallation cost. But for business, as well as institutions like Algonquin, the bigger bang will come from something else: merging the personal touch of a voice with the information handling heft of the Net.
One big believer in that potential is Merrill Lynch & Co. The largest stockbroker in America has given IP phones to 3,000 of its 68,000 employees—and plans to install them in every new office it opens. “Imagine,” says chief technology officer John McKinley, “a phone that recognizes a customer before the broker even picks up the handset, and flashes a snapshot on a computer screen of that customer’s portfolio, along with his 10 most recent trades and how those stocks are performing.” Similarly, Algonquin’s chief techie, Barry Brock, envisages a day in the next year or so when students scroll through their academic files or enrol in new courses at their residence desks, clicking on the screen to connect by phone to an adviser—whose own screen instantly calls up their file and displays the courses they’re considering. “In the not too distant future,” says Brock, “the only appliance on your desk will be totally integrated with voice, data and video.”
The future will come first to big corporate phone systems. Bell Canada has worked with both Cisco Systems Canada Co. (whose technology is used at Algon-
quin) and rival Nortel Networks Corp. (with whom Bell installed a similar system at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.) to promote claims of big savings over conventional office exchanges. At $400 to $1,000 each, IP phones also represent one of the few bright spots on the telecom industry’s otherwise bleak balance sheet.
There are ways for individuals to get on the phone over the Internet now. Microsoft’s new Windows XP software sold in Canada comes with a link, via the Messenger chat program, to a service launched in September with Telus Corp., offering what the companies claim is “DVD-quality” calls from PCs to phones in North America for about a third less than conventional long distance. In December, Bell launched a trial of a similar service in Ontario and Quebec. But it’s not the cheap long-distance calls driving phone companies’ interest. To Brad Fisher, director of product development for Bell ISP “the real value proposition” is in the extra services the next-generation phones can provide, especially as point-of-sale devices.
The same technology may also finally deliver something promised for years that has yet to appear: real competition in local phone service. Cable companies are also experimenting with IP phones—envisioning their use over existing connections into homes. But Alexander Brock, vice-president of business development for Torontobased Rogers Communications Inc., tempers his endorsement of present technology. “Anybody can do it for 100 people,” says Brock. “But can you do it for 100,000?” The answer won’t be “yes,” he thinks, for three to five years. Giving Alexander Graham Bell’s pivotal invention a little longer to reign—and ring. El
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