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ooma good, or ooma bad? VoIP Experts Express Concerns

September 20, 2007

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By now you have no doubt heard about ooma, the self-proclaimed "breakthrough" technology startup company with a self-proclaimed "ingenious" device that enables users to get free phones calls across the United States forever after paying $399 ($599 in 2008) for a device that connects to their broadband connection and, optionally, their PSTN line.

Indeed, it does look interesting. After all, who would not be thrilled to make as many phone calls around the United States as one wanted without paying a penny? This sounded too good to be true to us, so we decided to investigate.

ooma published some details on their web site about how the service works. Everything looked really good until we got to the section that asks, "What is the Peer-to-Peer concept behind ooma?" You have to read it to believe it. Here is what they say:

ooma's patent-pending call-routing algorithm—Distributed Termination—uses the internet to connect local calling areas throughout the United States for free instead of relying primarily on traditional phone switches, known as the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). As a result, each ooma customer who maintains their landline helps grow the ooma network. ooma's call-routing technology ensures a completely transparent experience so that the ability to make and receive phone calls is not impacted when their line is in use by another ooma caller.

As an example: Let's say you want to call "Claire" in Boston. You simply pick up the phone and dial. The ooma call is routed via the internet to an ooma customer with a landline in the 617 area code (let's call her "Cassy"). Cassy's ooma device (in Boston) completes the call by acting as a gateway and routes the call from her broadband to her landline, which is used to place a free call to your friend Claire. All this is done without any interruption to Cassy's phone service. In fact, Cassy doesn't even know her landline is in use and shall still be able to make and take phone calls.

The first thing that struck us as odd is the claim that this is a patent-pending technology. After all, Pulver's Free World Dial-Up service essentially does the same thing and has been around for years. So, what did they invent? I guess we'll need to see that patent document to say for certain.

What's troubling, though, is the fact that a caller in one location will be using the phone line of a caller in another location. Suppose that a person has a voice recorder connected to their phone line that records every conversation that is placed through their phone line. Can you imagine all of the private secrets that one might be able to record and post to the Internet? This really scares me. Even if the recordings were not made public, a person could, for example, capture credit card information to make illegal transactions or just steal personal identifying information to get other credit cards or access to bank accounts. Oh, this is scary.

ooma said later in its FAQ that "ooma has been engineered to detect and thwart third-parties from being able to listen in on your phone calls. As a result, ooma is no less secure than a traditional landline." As an engineer in the VoIP and telecom business, I do not believe they could put any form of technology into the ooma device that would prevent me from recording conversations on a landline. If they did, then perhaps that might be worth patenting, because that would truly be unique. My guess is that they are merely monitoring voltage changes and that will not work. We believe there may be a huge security problem here.

The other interesting implication is that since callers will be making calls through your broadband connection to your phone line, you will sacrifice some performance on your broadband connection. ooma has an answer to that concern, too. They said, "We use a high-quality, low-bandwidth compression algorithm to minimize the impact of calling on each ooma customer's Internet connection." OK, but that is still greater than zero and completely contradicts another statement where they said, "Our engineers have toiled around the clock to make sure your ooma devices provide the SAME voice quality and reliability of service you'd get with a traditional landline." (Emphasis added by ooma.)

One cannot have both "high-quality, low-bandwidth compression" and "the SAME voice quality". There is a lie in here somewhere. As anybody in this business knows, low-bandwidth voice compression means that there is a loss in quality. It might be minor, but there is a loss nonetheless. So, it is not "the SAME."

ooma really worries us. They appear to introduce significant security risks to users and are not being entirely truthful.