VoIP, or Voice Over IP is seen as the future of telecommunications. In the enterprise, it took hold about 5 years ago, and about 3 years ago it became the norm for any new phone system. In the highly controlled network environment of the office, the technology flourished and eventually became rock-solid by breakthroughs made by companies like Avaya, 3com and Cisco.
Around the same time consumer-based VoIP products like Vonage started hitting the market. These use the consumer’s internet connection and provided a dialtone like replacement for a standard phone line. Generally these types of connections were less expensive (and in some cases, they were MUCH less expensive), but at the same time they relied on the general internet (without any quality-of-service gaurentees). Recently there has been a lot of fanfare over Google Voice being available on various mobile devices like Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone. This allows users to use their data plans and bypass the cell-phone companies. The funny thing is, even AT&T sees consumers bypassing their services as a viable threat — they filed paperwork to lift the requirements that they provide phone services in their entire claimed market.
There are a few problems with this mass migration from traditional telephony services to this “wild-wild-west” VoIP services.
First off, VoIP has no concept of location-based services. With traditional PSTN “landline” or business services, the phone company delivers your services to a physical location (your home or business). This information is tied to a database which is given to 911 and other emergency services when you need it. Because VoIP connects over the internet, there is no real way to track where a call is physically being placed from — and the problem is exaserbated by devices like firewalls, VPN tunnels and MPLS networks.
Next, there is no concept of Quality of Service for many of these consumer devices. Companies like AT&T in my local market offer DSL service in most areas that has a 1MB download and 256kbps upload. This allows for a descent speed for doing things like browsing the web or reading emails. However, if you try to use a VoIP connection you most likely will saturate this connection — and if you try to browse the internet while being on the phone (something I do quite a bit), you run a huge risk of your connection breaking up or being disconnected completely. More advanced routers and internet service providers offer QoS for connections, but these are not universal, nor are they easy to setup. I won’t go into the reliability of internet connections in storms, power outages, etc. where quality and resiliency is a needed in emergencies.
Compatibility is another issue that is becomming apparent. There are hundreds of different “VoIP” providers out there, each with their own software or hardware application. Companies are all trying to write their own standard (like Skype), or if they use some of the open standards (like Google), they implement them in a way that makes it very difficult to interconnect with others. This is very similar to the beginning of the telephone network where there were lots of different networks, and none of them connected with eachother. The government finally stepped in and created some laws (known as Common Carriage Laws) that required anybody who wanted to be a telephone provider to interconnect with each other. Currently many VoIP providers do connect via the PSTN, but often times they charge users additional fees to do this.
Finally, we need to take a step back at the PSTN system itself. It has become a commodity item, and even further more, it has become a so universal it is considered a utility. In many markets it is heavily regulated by the government and has lots of redudancy, backups and, well it’s a proven technology. As more users disconnect their traditional phone lines and go with VoIP providers, less work is being put into this system and eventually that glue that holds it, along with all the PSTN providers will begin to go away. Not only that, but because it has become such a commidity, you can get land-lines for cheap, and unlimited minutes (both in cell and landline), it makes very little sence to use these technologies other than it’s the “next best thing”. If you don’t believe me, take a look at your VoIP provider, and compare that to a $14 phone line (unlimited local calls, and up to $0.05 a minute for long distance).
Think twice about cheering on AT&T in cutting the cord with land-line service. It’s something that is easy and well understood. Also think about how you plan to get internet access — and how those who are in unprofitable areas can get basic services (like phone and internet services) if companies like AT&T and Verizon are not forced to provide them.