Other Corporate Developments
Of course, I grabbed the opportunity to talk to Mark Spencer, inventor of Asterisk and president of Digium. Continuing the mission of supporting all voice protocols through Asterisk, they've made architectural improvements to the most recent version to allow for more flexibility and make it easier to incorporate support for protocols.
New SIP capabilities and Bluetooth support are specific recent additions, with patches been written to support encryption through TLS. They also support some carrier protocols for high-density deployments. Their AGI (similar to CGI) broadens the number of programmers who will be able to write interfaces to Asterisk.
Some of the features that can make a difference in people's phone experiences include strong support for presence (as one has in instant messaging) and DUNDi Core Routing, which enables a peer-to-peer connection model. A General Peering Agreement makes signatories agree not to abuse peer-to-peer connections.
What are they not working on? Well, Asterisk hasn't incorporated hand-off mechanisms such as cellular phones have, but that isn't a liability, because VoIP is not yet employed through a network of towers like cell phones. Spencer is following 802.16 (WiMAX) development, but it seems expensive enough at this point that they don't need to worry about supporting it.
I talked to Ed Camarena at Veraz Networks about their interfaces that make it easier to port applications to VoIP and to make new devices compatible. In effect, companies are replacing the PSTN and non-IP cellular networks piece by piece; Veraz products provide common interfaces that are appreciated by companies that are merging or trying to quickly support new devices.
Policy issues have made such a mess of telephony for so long that VoIP can remain free of them only by setting up an independent network, and that's what I think ultimately will happen. Providers are hell-bent to connect to the public telephone system, but the deck is stacked and the headaches are enormous.
Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire came to VON, as he did last year, to deliver a keynote promising legislative support for VoIP. Like Michael Powell (who also gave a keynote last year, when he was still chair of the FCC), Sununu is a conservative with a dual and perhaps contradictory approach to economic policy. He likes new, innovative businesses with lots of energy behind them, and wants to remove artificial barriers to their growth. But on the other hand, he does not challenge the right of older telephone carriers to extract the maximum profit they can from their own networks, even when doing so places barriers in the way of new entrants.
In discussing the initiatives in Congress, he focused rather obliquely on spectrum reallocation and said nothing about a more relevant bill recently considered in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, reputedly an "update" of the historic 1996 Telecom Act. This bill would legislate several of the requirements that regulators have been trying to enforce on VoIP operators: payment into the universal service fund, emergency 911 services, and so on. Sununu's contribution to this debate was to indicate that VoIP providers had better comply with these regulations, which import all sorts of assumptions from the circuit-switching world to VoIP.
Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, asked Sununu to support opening more spectrum for unlicensed use, which is the environment in which WiFi has flourished. Sununu made the interesting reply that providers seem to find as much bandwidth as they need for their use of unlicensed spectrum, which is limited to local area networking because unlicensed spectrum comes with power restrictions to prevent interference. He felt that other areas of spectrum would be more fruitful if licensed to providers who can exploit it at higher power levels.
Claims of abundance for unlicensed bandwidth may be borne out by earlier interviews in this article. But one can always argue that having more resources leads to new applications, and that unlicensed use should not be constrained forever by the historical accidents that led to its current bandwidth. (And to his credit, Sununu said he was open to hearing about potential uses for a broader spectrum.)
In response to other questions, Sununu:
- Raised familiar criticisms of the universal service fund, but said he'd support a "simple universal formula" for the poor and for rural areas with unusual high costs for providing service.
- Admitted that a groundswell of popularity for VoIP would reduce tax revenues, but said governments should react by re-evaluating all their sources of revenue.
- Answered a question from Mark Spencer concerning open source software by saying that government should not be biased in either direction, but that open source software had proven it has a role to play in society, and has proven to be viable as the basis of at least some businesses.
As observers have been warning recently, the U.S. is really not adopting high-bandwidth networking the way a country would if it were serious about promoting an information economy. Hardly anyone is laying the groundwork for the converged applications I mentioned at the beginning of this article. VoIP vendors are going to have to continue their slow progress converting users one office at a time until something creates a big new opportunity for new applications.
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