Q&A with Rod Ullens of Voxbone

by Martyn Davies on 2nd October 2009

Rod Ullens is the CEO of Voxbone, who have launched an initiative called iNum which creates a “virtual country” with its own country-code +883.  This so-called “Earth code” allows any iNum user to call any other free (or at least very cheaply) regardless of the physical geography of either.  iNum uses international IP networking, and allows telcos to allocate ranges of 883 numbers and route calls to and from regular geographic (or mobile numbers).

Rod Ullens  (picture by kind permission of Dan York)

Rod Ullens, Voxbone CEO (picture: Dan York)

The current consortium of iNum telcos include companies like Jajah, Ribbit, Truphone, Voxeo and Rebtel. Truphone, for example, allocate +883 numbers to users of their iPod Touch phone software, and Voxeo allow international access to their voice platform using iNum.

TRMP: Can you describe in short what iNum is for?

Ullens: Our goal with iNum is to have numbers that are not limited to the retstrictions of the PSTN, and to see how numbers can behave once they are fully IP-enabled. We trying to provide these +883 numbers with features that regular numbers don’t support yet, just to be prepared for the day when every number will be fully IP-enabled.

TRMP: What kinds of features?

Ullens: One of the things we tried, and enabled on these iNum numbers was HD (high definition) voice.  Currently we just enable one codec, G.722, [approx twice the frequency range of legacy phone lines].  Right now it’s quite simple, but the job will become more complex when we start to support more HD codecs.  Networks that are routing calls to iNum networks via IP are using different codecs, so we’ll need to support a range of different choices.

TRMP: Looking through the list of iNum members, mostly they’re VoIP-type companies, but have you had any interest from the incumbent telcos and mobile operators?

Ullens: Actually, two incumbents have done it.  One is already done and will route the numbers, and the second will do it very soon.  I would like to announce it when it’s done; one is a big name.

TRMP: It sounds like it’s really picking up some momentum now?

Ullens: Little by little, it’s a chicken and egg problem that we’re facing.  The telcos are not against it, that’s the interesting thing, but they only want to do it once there’s sufficient traffic.

TRMP: Are they routing the numbers on a pay-per-minute basis?

Ullens: Yeah, it will not be free, the incumbents will charge on a pay-per-minute basis, which I think is OK,  that’s part of the business model, and they need to see a business case for routing to iNum.  They will charge their users, and we will charge them, so like a traditional international destination.

TRMP: iNum was also in used at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, what was that for?

Ullens: We were working there with the OpenBTS project, you know those people?  [an open source GSM network using Asterisk servers and a GSM 900 MHz air interface].  I met them at the eComm conference, and they have a very interesting project, and I wanted to help them assign iNum numbers to all the mobiles in their network.  So people at Burning Man could call outside, not just between themselves on the site.  But it was also like a showcase: A lot of people at Burning Man don’t really want to be connected, they prefer to be isolated [Burning Man is held in a remote desert location], but also some people there like to try out new things, participate in new experiences.  So OpenBTS set up their gear and GSM handsets at Burning Man, and we assigned all of them iNum numbers.

TRMP: Sounds very cool.  Did you go along to he festival in person?

Ullens: No, unfortunately not, I was in LA at the time and it is kind of far away in the desert.  I didn’t go, but I would like to go along next year.  A lot of people go there from Silicon Valley, and go to be isolated, but you know there’s lots of people there who are very technically aware.  It’s a nice place to test these kinds of new services.  Bringing together OpenBTS and iNum is an interesting test for connecting a place that’s isolated, so it could be used somewhere that’s permanently isolated, or bringing voice and SMS to somewhere temporarily isolated [by natural disaster].

TRMP: You’re also working with a company called I6Net, a co-operation about 3G video?

Ullens: The idea behind that is to try to support video on the voice channel [i.e. 3G video or H.263] , where the video and voice comes together, mixed, on the same channel, and it can be separated into VoIP and MPEG video for other services.

TRMP: So you could support 3G mobile to IP video conferencing for example?

Ullens: Yeah, exactly.

TRMP: We can’t let you go without saying which phone(s) you use in your daily life?

Ullens: Here my deskphone is the SNOM [VoIP phone].  My mobile phone is the iPhone:  It’s a good phone, good for all kinds of data.  I never did it before, and now I see myself checking my emails, using Twitter; this kind of stuff.  It’s my first smartphone. I never really had a smartphone before.

TRMP: Rod Ullens, thanks very much.

Previous post:

Next post: