VoIP is all Business at VONby Andy Oram
Voice over IP is in an early stage: mimicry. Like many new technologies, it has started its economic life by reproducing familiar services and features from the established products it is trying to replace; in this regard, VoIP providers promote PBXs, call routing, automated voice response, and other things businesses are used to looking for.
That's my impression from checking product announcements and session topics in September at VON, the major VoIP industry show. VoIP has a benefit to deliver right now, but it's being realized mostly in corporate communications. VoIP's potential cost savings are obvious when a business considers running all of its calls over the same IP network it set up internally for data, as well as over a phone line to its internet provider (which could be its phone company).
I think the big advance in internet communications will come eventually from a merger of applications such as sensors, audio, video, and groupware. Voice will be just a built-in means of interfacing with devices over a network, and people and applications on those devices. This is quite a way off.
But a lot of interesting things were happening at VON.
The conference moved this year to the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, so I got to see this building for the first time. I noticed that the staunch puritans among Boston's city planning department ensured that visitors arriving by public transportation would have to cross a long bridge to reach the building--a memorable effect, I'm sure, in a raging snowstorm. But once you get to the center, you can enjoy wonderful views of a city that actually looks pretty nice from the southeast, as well as a more upbeat decor and convivial layout than the Hynes Center offers.
Mesh Networking Commercialized
Let me start with a couple of companies offering products or infrastructure that I thought showed some of the exciting new things we could do with VoIP. Neither of these companies are really offering VoIP; rather, they're at the conference because VoIP could make use of their offerings.
Mesh networking has been a passion of the Pringles-can WiFi crowd for a decade, as well as a fixture of experiments such as sensor networks. But its viability as a mainstream technology--and one that generates revenue for vendors, to boot--is demonstrated by the story of Firetide. VP Barbara Cardillo spoke to me about their products and who's been buying them.
The core technology is a wireless mesh network made up of several hubs, using the same standard protocols to interconnect that they offer to customer equipment. Currently they employ 802.11b and 802.11g, but they can be upgraded in the future for another standard, such as WiMAX.
Hurricane Katrina has led to well-publicized discussions about the serious barriers that incompatible communications devices put up to effective disaster response; governments are consequently getting very interested in WiFi mesh solutions such as those offered by Firetide.
The products are a range of hubs with two antennae and a number of Ethernet ports to which one can connect not only phone lines to the internet, but devices such as video cameras.
And video cameras (such as those for surveillance) are one of the most popular applications of this mesh network. The ability to share images from cameras shows that WiFi bandwidth is pretty good. But VoIP and data networking are also popular; warehouses and educational institutions are among the main customers, along with more familiar ones like municipal networks.
Some companies are already deploying protocols similiar to the WiMAX standard that is currently being implemented and tested. One example is TowerStream, which uses Aperto equipment to serve customers in Boston, Chicago, and New York.
TowerStream calls one of its most popular offerings "five for five," which stands for 5Mbs for $500. (The 5Mbs refers to the actual TCP output, free from any overhead eaten up by wireless protocols.) Since a T1 typically costs about that amount and offers only 1.544Mbs, this is very competitive in terms of cost.
However, the real benefit of TowerStream, made possible by Aperto's protocols and eventually by 802.16, is differentiated traffic. The TowerStream "five for five" service guarantees 1.5Mbs (the same as T1), duplex, using the CIR (Confirmed Information Rate) protocol that will be standard in 802.16. The rest of the "five by five" is 3.5Mbs for best-effort service that occupies the blank spaces left by the guaranteed service. So customers can simultaneously use the service for voice (set up with the standard SIP protocol) and for web traffic, email, etc. without disrupting the voice transmission.
The 1.5Mbps-guaranteed TowerStream service, like a traditional T1, can reliably--without oversubscribing--carry 15 VoIP phone calls simultaneously, where each phone call requires 90Kbps and is sent without compression. One can imagine supporting 45 users if--as cell phone providers often do--one allows a three-to-1 oversubscription.
The network is designed for line-of-sight service, but in practice works very well without line of sight. In fact, the company has service in cities with lots of buildings and potential noise from other spectrum users. Some customers get service 12 or 13 miles away from their POPs.
I sent video mail at the Glenayre booth. What's video mail? VP Kelly Bevan demo'd it by calling one phone from another phone and leaving a message that contained both voice and video; if the receiving phone is capable of displaying video, it shows us talking as well as playing what we say.
This may not sound like a great enabler or productivity enhancer, but it's catching on in Europe and Asia because people see it as cool. This simple application shows that advanced networks spur innovation. Bevan says phones are "just in the embryonic stages" of developing internet applications, and that video conferencing (for instance) will be in demand.
But the note of alarm here is that Glenayre could not show off its new application in North America on a cell phone, as they do in the rest of the world. At VON, they mocked up a cellular connection using IP. This is an illustration of how far we lag behind.