You don't want two or three or six phone numbers. You want one phone number where people can always find you, and VoIP is going to help make that possible.
(Unless one phone number is the last thing you want. Maybe you're one of those who actually want to leave work at . . . work? But we'll come back to that in a minute.)
Let's assume the one-number dream really does capture your imagination. It may take a year or two, but many in the VoIP community say the advantages of IP telephony could bring to the table the kind of ease of use and cost-effectiveness that will make one number a reality.
"A lot of these features have been available for some time, things like simultaneous ringing, but they have been difficult to set up. Now that everything is web based it is all much easier to configure," said Scott Wharton, vice president of marketing at BroadSoft, whose application software delivers hosted telephony and multimedia services.
Level playing field
The advantage of VoIP in this context is its ability to transcend platform issues, explained Yaron Raps, a partner with BusinessEdge Solutions, a technology integrator in East Brunswick, N.J.
"VoIP will be the common transport," he said. "Once you have a common groundthe IP as the transportthen everything else can follow, in an agnostic fashion."
As one-number evolves, there may be a variety of ways in which solutions could be implemented. Wharton for instance suggests that you don't literally need one number, as long as all of your phones will behave as if they were on a single number.
With simultaneous ringing, for instance, a user can give out a single phone number to all friends and colleagues. Dial that one number, the user is found, "and you dont need any cooperation from any of the phone companies. In this world it's all up to you."
If it was up to Ross Brennan, he would not want any such thing.
Brennan is CEO of Cicero Networks, a three-year-old voice-over-Wi-Fi technology provider in Dublin, Ireland. He has grave doubts about the business logic about one-number services, whether they be driven by VoIP or any other technology. A call to Brennan's land line in Ireland (or to his Wi-Fi phone) costs X per minute, whereas a call to his cellular mobile phone costs roughly 15X. Make it all one number and the equation gets cloudy: Which rate will be charged? Probably not the one that benefits the user.
"It concentrates power in the hands of the provider who has given you that number," he said.
Then there is the more practical concern, roughly summed up as: Leave me alone! Except for the most hard-bitten workaholics among us, most people likely do not want their business calls following them to their car, the mall, the ballpark.
Simple answers One-number advocates say these issues are easily overcome. Use your cell phone as your one number and billing becomes a non-issue, Wharton said, "especially in the U.S. where you have 1000 minutes for $40 a month. Who cares if I use a few times more or less?"
As for the intrusive aspect, Wharton said, no one is a prisoner. "The user still has control. You still have caller ID and can let the call go to voice mail. Secondly, you have an off button. This is just giving you another option."
Will you have that option? And will VoIP be the delivery mechanism?
Dan Hoffman sees a way that it could happen. As president and CEO of M5 Networks in New York City, he heads up a firm delivering an outsourced VoIP solution that replaces traditional phone systems. He advocatesperhaps not surprisinglyan outsourced VoIP solution as the way to create a one-number world.
Cost, fuss factors
In the past, he said, phone systems could deliver what in effect amounted to a one-number plan, in the form of the find-me/follow-me function. But it hasn't been easy. "If I wanted to give my employees their own phone numbers that would always be used, that would always be forwarded to cell phones, or if I wanted to do complicated call routing in the old system I needed a whole bunch of lines doing a whole bunch of things that I would have to program them to do. I needed to pay for lines and numbers and pay for somebody to constantly maintain it."
The easy programmability to IP helps, but it doesn't take us all the way there.
With a hosted solution, he suggested, it becomes possible to off-load the administrative burden onto a third party, thus make one-number exactly what it has promised to be: A simple and user-friendly way to consolidate your contacts to a single point, regardless of device.
Mileage may vary
Will it happen, and if so, when? Yaron Raps suggests that while the technology could be ready any day, it could take a while for the market to solidify.
"If you are a business person in a high-end environment, probably you will say yes to this. But if you are part of the mass market and are looking to create a distinction between work time and leisure time, you dont want to have one phone number. You just dont see the value in it right now."