What happens when phones are no longer geography?

I’m quite psyched. Thanks to some wizardry from the folks at Vbuzzer, my Voice over IP provider, I now have my business line ringing in multiple physical locations. Call me and I’ll have phones in different parts of Colorado ringing with the call. If I power up Vbuzzer on my laptop, I’ll also be able to plug in a headset or traditional phone and have that ring too, regardless of where I am in the world.
This isn’t particularly rocket science: most of the VOIP systems on the market can do this, but what’s surprising to me is that this feature, what I really consider a killer capability, is barely mentioned by the VOIP providers and even the third-party VOIP resellers who are popping up like mushrooms after a heavy rain.
Think about it, though: you could have your home phone number ring in parallel with your office line. You could have the phone in your weekend cottage or beach house ring at the same time, and you could even unplug the hotel phone and hook it up to a device no bigger than a box of cigarettes and have that ring and appear to all callers as your main office line. No “please hold, trying to track Dave down” stuff, no call hunting, none of that. Just what I believe is a revolution in telephony: the separation of phone number from geographic location.

Colleagues like Om Malik have written about this within the context of 911 emergency service (see his article the FCC and e911) and Brad Feld has also explored this topic in his recent musings about how 911 would work on his VOIP line when he spends half his year in Colorado and the other half in Alaska (see his amusing Vonage 911), but I haven’t really seem much about this untethering of phone from geography.
One fascinating implication of this is that you can now ask for a phone number in an area code you’d like to appear within, even if you aren’t within a thousand miles of the geographic location. That’s right, if you’re secretly located in Oklahoma City, you can still get a Manhattan number so that people in the Big Apple think you’re uptown, not far, far away in “flyover” country.
It also means that the geographic information that’s implied on a modern business card might finally be irrelevant. If I live in Vail, Colorado but consult regularly with a company in Chicago, why not have a business card that lists the corporate mailing address (if any) and a Chicago phone number, even though that line only rings in Vail?
Years ago you could set up a foreign exchange number, but there were fairly exorbitant fees involved and so it was very rare to see anything of that nature. If someone said their number was in area code 202, for example, you could safely conclude they were in Washington DC or thereabouts.
For me, as I’ve said, there’s a tremendous sense of freedom knowing that I don’t need to call in for my messages (Vbuzzer delivers voicemail via email as MP3 attachments. Very nice!) and I don’t need to be a specific place if I’ve set up a call with a client or customer: my line rings wherever I want to hook into the Internet, be it my home office, on the road during a business trip, or relaxing at our summer lake house. It’s all completely transparent.
I think it’s one of the greatest selling points for VOIP, and am continually baffled why none of the many VOIP companies are promoting it to customers. Sure, saving money is a good thing (I love paying $9.99/month for unlimited North American calling), but bringing my phone number with me is just so darn liberating.
Doesn’t it sound wonderful to have a phone number that’s no longer tethered to a specific geographic location?

4 comments on “What happens when phones are no longer geography?

  1. I chose a 212 area code (cool) but had sound quality issues (not cool). Couldn’t get a local number if I wanted one (not cool for local customers), nor could I transfer the one I’ve had for four years. Love the idea of VOIP, but I won’t be an early adopter. Having said that–why is there a mathematical equation on your comment form, and did I pass?

  2. This is a neat idea, one I had not thought of, but I totally agree with the Anti Geography concept.
    I use Skype, since PC Magazine rated it the best, last time I looked.
    What I don’t get is why anyone would resist VoIP…since all you need is a $10 internet microphone from Office Depot, WalMart, wherever you shop. I have a more expensive mic, but I used a $10 mic and it worked fine.
    I tell friends who are computer users about FREE VoIP, and some say, “I have unlimited calls at night on my cell phone” or other ridiculous remarks.
    It seems to be the Luddite type attitude, thinking there is something “mysterious” or “complex” about what is as simple as sending an email. It took, oh, maybe 2 minutes to set up my Skype account and start talking.
    Evan Williams’ Odeo podcast tool is another FREE item that is easy, simple, and effective. Yet people resist it. I have “Send me an Odeo” or “Send me a voice message” ads all over the place, not one person has used it. Weird.
    And I am not a geek. I am just a writer who has slowly, gradually learned a ton from people like Dave Taylor and others.

  3. Cool, definitely! New, not so much. This feature at least 10 years old, probably older if you paid the traditional phone company enough money for implementation. I started using call blasting in 1999 when I worked for a VoIP IVR, used it with the Webley service for several years and currently use it with Vonage. The big win at this point is that the service is now cheap and comes bundled with all the phone packages. With the Vonage implementation, my cell phone is just as available as a landline.
    In my experience with all call systems, the “please hold, trying to track Dave down” system has everything to do with screening a call and nothing to do with call blasting. The hold is giving the person you are calling a heads up so they can choose to answer or send you to voicemail.

  4. I’ve been using Linx Communications LinxConnect service for several years now (http://www.linxcom.com). Combining this service, which offers call-blasting to a set of up to three numbers (each can be enabled or disabled via the web), auto FAX detection, so the single number I give out can be FAXed to with no extra effort (I have them forward a copy of all inbound FAXes to my eFax account so I end up with a PDF attachment of the FAX in my email inbox), and a variety of notification options.
    They are able to customize the offering too — I have it set up to screen the caller when call-blasting, so if there’s no Caller-ID given to me, I can hear the caller’s voice announcing who it is that’s trying to reach me.
    I’ve got menu option 0 configured to out-call to Cisco’s operator dispatch text paging service(a third party I’ve dealt with for this is http://www.answerquick.com), and option 2 sends the caller directly to my Cisco Unity voicemail.
    Coupling this with the configuration of my cell phone to bypass my cell provider’s voicemail system and instead send all missed calls to Unity, I’ve got only one VoiceMail system to manage! I’ll be able to simplify this setup when Cisco deploys Call Manager 5 (announced 3/6/06), but until then, I’ve got most of those features working now.

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