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Michael Robertson on VoIP wars and Net Neutrality

Backpackers rejoice

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Serial entrepreneur Michael Robertson extended his Gizmo Project this week with a Flash-based browser plug-in. This means no installation is required, and the service offers five-minutes free calls to anyone in the world, or 10 if you register with an email address.

A big "so what?" you might think - in which case you probably own the PC in front of you. But for much of Asia, which accesses the internet through shared terminals in the ubiquitous cyber cafes, it's quite a big deal indeed. As it is for backpackers - who keep their trust funds back at home intact by never spending any money when they travel.

At Gizmo Call, you simply punch in a number and start talking. For $4 it also allows you to spoof a number - so stand by for junk calls from 419ers.

We took the opportunity to catch up with Robertson his latest snapshot of the VoIP industry. Gizmo scored a coup last year when Nokia bundled it with the N80 Internet Edition - its mass market Wi-Fi phone. Robertson hinted at more deals to come.

head and body picture of Michael Robertson, wearing navy jacket and blue shirt"We've been working for Nokia very closely for a year, on all kinds of things from usability to NAT traversal - all making it easy to set up and use," he told us.

Robertson had nothing but praise for Nokia for fighting the carriers' refusal to include Wi-Fi on devices they sell. Most famously, Nokia's Blackberry clone the E61 was denuded of WLAN at Cingular's request, when it became the E62.

"Where the majority of telco-related companies are figuring out ways to lock users in, Nokia is moving in the opposite direction," he says.

If there's a silver lining, he hopes, in that it might raise awareness of SIM-less phones.

"The idea of unlocked phones, where you swap out one GSM SIM and replace it with another, hasn't really been in the consciousness or reported in the press. But you're starting to see changes with that.

The problem was that all the major US retail chains, such as BestBuy, Circuit City or Radio Shack, had each done an exclusive deal with one vendors, which dictated what they could and couldn't sell.

How was he finding it deal with telcos, we wondered? A true VoIP service still needed to be able to terminate at a POTS line.

"There's reasonable competition," he told us. "But you see a lot of sneakiness - you agree the tarriffs and then when you get the bill 45 days later there are all these extra telecomm charges. It's like your cellular bill!"

"If you're not watching it like a hawk, lots of imaginary charges pop up, and the rates change all the time. There is competition but you have to be very diligent," he said.

One Net Neutrality, Robertson joins with the engineer's consensus to leave well alone. Which is a little surprising for a VoIP provider.

"I just see it as a natural struggle for dominance/profit in the free market. If you're Wal-Mart, you can go to manufacturers and jam them like crazy: it's all about dominance. So on the Internet a DSL provider goes 'I have these DSL lines', and a Google says 'I have all these people using my search engine'. This whole network neutrality debate is about sides of the debate getting the best government protection for their businesses."

And the scares are overwrought, he reckons.

"I can't see any scenario where a provider would black any services or meaningfully degrade them because we know what happens to walled gardens on the internet - they get driven out of the market." ®

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