Voice over IP (VoIP) has changed telecommunications in dramatic and irreversible ways. And it’s only the beginning.
When the Internet Protocol (IP) debuted in 1974, it became possible to transmit voice signals as data packets over standard networks for the first time. This had dramatic implications for both computer and voice communication.
In short, it eliminated the need for costly special-purpose voice and data networks, dedicated voice switching equipment and the specialist skills to implement, support and service telephone systems. All voice and data communications could henceforth flow on converged networks.
IP is deemed a sort of open-ended future protocol – one for all time, or at least all foreseeable time. It has replaced all other communication protocols, from CCTV surveillance to radio field comms to videoconferencing.
New applications keep cropping up – most recently presence and WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication). It is difficult to imagine IP being replaced soon by anything less dramatic than unmediated telecommunication – in other words, telepathy.
The change to VoIP
Seeing the future, telecommunications operators have been planning, or at least mulling, IP-centric product and infrastructure roadmaps for a long time.
Partly, they were pushed. The new protocol, combined with market liberalisation in some territories, made a new generation of VoIP players possible. But partly also, it was an opportunity, as IP enabled differentiation in their own business models.
So where is it?
There’s just one problem. The telco operators in semi-liberated markets like South Africa are not switching to IP retail products just yet – especially not for consumers.
Their customers may be a little upset to know that, should they peek into their provider’s inner workings, they will probably find a lot of IP. (In August Telkom announced its switch to IP at the core. Earlier it announced a widespread move to IP in the access (last-mile) portion of its national network.)
All operators are benefiting from toll bypass – or zero-charge calls on IP switched networks – while failing to pass the benefits on to their customers.
Even worse, many tell their customers VoIP is unreliable, an almost insurmountable obstacle for other providers while Telkom’s sole control over the last mile portion of the national communications network continues. In effect this means VoIP providers offering retail IP products have to rely on access links provisioned by an operator whose livelihood is threatened by their very existence – not an ideal situation. No wonder the IP-is-bad narrative persists.
However, imminent regulation will finally nip this in the bud when the local loop (last mile access) is unbundled (made accessible to providers other than Telkom).
More new ground
Meanwhile, IP continues to break new ground in the unified communications arena. WebRTC, a browser-based real-time communication project open-sourced by Google in May 2011, is now on the brink of moving from development into production.
Chrome and Firefox are already fitted with WebRTC and ready to roll of the servers to a device of your bidding. As a result, no longer will you need a discrete telephone application on your desktop or smartphone, only the browser you already have!
Why is that important?
The opportunities opened up by this technological innovation are limitless, or limited only by the imagination and ability of developers. Considering that browsers reside on a wide variety of fixed, mobile and appliance-based device platforms, all sorts of interesting possibilities arise, when also throwing location and proximity awareness into the mix.
It’s not so much what IP has done for communications, but what it is still going to do.
By Rob Lith, Director, Connection Telecom