Ooma's Trojan Horse strategy for the home

The Ooma Hub, which users buy in order to access Ooma's free voice over IP telephone service, wants to be at the root of your home network. 

That means it wants to connect directly to your cable or DSL modem. Everything else - your wireless router (if you have a separate one), network hub or personal computers - must connect to the Internet by way of the Ooma Hub. The hub functions as both a telephone adapter unit and 100 Mbit/sec. router, allowing other traffic on your home network to pass through. But it could also do much more.

There are good reasons why a VoIP device wants to be first in line.

Reason 1: Quality of service.

It can protect call quality by giving priority to voice traffic. "The [Ooma]Hub has very sophisticated quality of service algorithms built in that protect the voice stream from impact by simultaneous sessions of Bit Torrent, Slingbox, e-mail downloads, movie downloads, etc." says Rich Buchanan, Ooma's chief marketing officer. (A single telephone call needs about 90 Kbit/sec of bandwidth, according to Vonage. So giving priority to voice traffic is unlikely to significantly affect the performance of other applications. However, online gaming and video could quickly use up all available bandwidth, affecting telephone calls.)

Reason 2: It wants to sell you more stuff

But this arrangement also means that all of your home network traffic is passing through the Ooma Hub. That's a privileged position on a home network, and it's one that Ooma hopes to exploit with new products. Indeed, the Ooma Hub is more than a VoIP adapter and router: It is a Linux-based network application server with enough processing power and memory to support other services. The device is capable of supporting USB-attached Wi-Fi or storage devices, as well as cordless phones and other devices that support the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications standard.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Buchanan describes the Ooma Hub as a "Trojan Horse" that attracts users with free phone calls in order to deliver a payload of other products and services that users might be willing to pay for down the road.

Ooma won't say exactly what complementary products it will introduce, but Buchanan will speak in general terms. "We will have applications that fall into three basic categories: network management, home automation, and data management," he says. Future features may include anti-virus, anti-spam, and phishing filters as well as bandwidth monitoring and the ability to support "DECT-connected devices" such as a door bell that rings your telephone, and wireless picture frames for sharing photos and videos.

Protecting your privacy 

But having the Ooma hub in a position to see every packet of data that traverses your home network has some potential privacy implications as well. Today the Ooma Hub gives priority to voice traffic. It doesn't monitor, store or transmit back to Ooma any information about home network activity that passes through it.

As a telecommunications service provider Ooma is bound by the same regulations other carriers and ISPs face, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. And Buchanan points out that the FCC has been involved in Ooma as an investor, through the Telecommunications Development Fund. "[The FCC] has been very helpful in helping us navigate legislative issues," he says.

On the other hand, the Ooma Hub is one more device on the home network (your cable or DSL modem being the other) that's capable of monitoring everything you do online.

I'm not worried about it. But it's something to be aware of.

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