Someone Invent This: A Home-Based Call Filtering Service

This is the first post in a new category of posts on this blog: Someone Invent This. Every so often, I’ll get an idea for a product, a business, a service, or a technology that I’d like to see come to market. I figure if I throw the idea out there, there’s a chance someone might pick it up and run with it – or, better yet, maybe the service or product already exists in some form and I just haven’t found it yet.

So here’s what I’m looking for: a better way to block, filter, and generally manage phone calls that come into my home. In the email era, we’re used to having some form of control over when and how we are communicated with – we have spam filters, challenge/response systems, and of course the ability to only check email when we feel like it. Phone calls are the most intrusive form of remote communication – we have these little boxes that make noise, any time of the day or night, and anyone can dial our number and interrupt whatever we’re doing. We only have basic, binary-like control over our phones: plugged in, or disconnected. Ringer on, or ringer off. There are some rudimentary controls from the phone company – the ability to block unknown callers for instance, but they’re crude and limited. Over the past few months we’ve had a few late night wrong-number calls, and a constant barrage of telemarketers calling during our dinner time. I’m envisioning a system that would allow for a much greater degree of when and how you’d receive phone calls in your home.

This proverbial “little black box” would sit between your incoming phone lines and the house lines, or if you’re using a digital phone/VOIP service, sit between your VOIP box and your house lines leading to your phones. It would also be connected to your router and be managed via a Web browser with a simple user interface and would filter all incoming calls at certain times (after 10pm), turn them back on at a certain time (7am), and would give you the control to turn off incoming calls during your dinner hour. It would have an option for a message to allow for emergency calls to get through by a voice prompt saying the user has turned off their phone, but press a certain number combination (that would change randomly) to bypass – this would be optional, but it would stop all of the automated calling services cold. In fact, you might think of it as a basic Turing test for the phone – verification that the call is really coming from a person.

It would also have a “whitelist” of incoming numbers (family, friends) that could get through at any time of the day or night without any challenge. What about a community-based voting system where people could rank incoming phone numbers as being from telemarketers? Similar to community spam tagging, the user could open up the system’s incoming call history and mark the phone call at 6:05pm as being a “junk call” and comment why. If more than “x” number of people classified it as a junk call, it would automatically be filtered and not passed through. There would be a way for a caller to visit a public Web site and see (anonymously) the complaints against their phone number. Also included would be basic functionality for controlling the blocking of anonymous or unknown callers. There’d be some sort of address book (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) synchronization to populate the black box with known good numbers.

The business model is pretty simple: if it was sold independently by a networking manufacturer (D-Link, Belkin, etc.), there would be a charge for the black box, and perhaps there would be some sort of a low yearly fee for the service, software updates, tech support, etc. Or it could be sold by your phone company as a value-added service for a monthly fee. It might also be implemented by mobile phone carriers as more people move to just having mobile, and not home, phones.

Those are just a few ideas – there are many creative uses for a filtering system such as this. Putting some software intelligence between you and your phone system would allow for a definite improvement in the way we use our phones.