The New Dot-com Gold Rush

by Ted Wallingford

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SS7 is the protocol stack that governs call signaling and billing on the public switched telephone network (PSTN). SS7 is used by carriers as a common language for communicating call-routes and bandwidth consumption in the never-sleeping international telephone network.

Until recently, the availability of bandwidth between the SS7 network and VoIP systems came by way of IP-enabled legacy voice switches that could act as a go-between for large VoIP networks that need SS7 signaling in bulk. But now that Verisign has introduced a gateway service it calls "SIP-7", traditional voice bandwidth will become a commodity. The service will allow startup VoIP dial-tone providers high-end access to all the major carriers' voice networks, removing one of the biggest competitive advantages of the big phone companies.

This is significant because it means that the international telephony network and the Internet are becoming more and more intertwined, and because it clearly indicates that VoIP has the potential, if not the inevitability, to replace the PSTN altogether. This would be an enormous industrial shift.

And an army of willing accomplices are already laying the groundwork, developing tomorrow's telephony systems. One of them is Digium, which makes hardware and software that lets you turn your Linux PC into a fully-functional soft-based voice switching system--like that elaborate, fridge-sized PBX at the office, only much smaller and cheaper. Digium's softPBX, which is open-source, is called Asterisk.

Of course, learning Linux isn't exactly a resume-enhancer if you're a traditional telephone technician. That's why another VoIP developer is working on making the transition to soft-based PBXs easier. Coalescent Systems, of Calgary, Aberta, is developing a PHP and Perl-based administration front-end for Digium's softPBX. Called the "Asterisk Management Portal", the product uses open source components such as Asterisk and MySQL to create a cohesive, turn-key softPBX distribution that is entirely user-administerable.

Ryan Courtnage, co-founder of Coalescent and a veteran of IBM, believes small business customers will embrace VoIP telephone systems the same way they embraced Linux in the late 1990s. "Early adopters are tecnically savvy and know how to access the intellectual capital in the open source community," he says, tipping his hat to legion of enthusiastic developers already deploying Asterisk-based solutions in the field.

Today's VoIP visionaries see Asterisk, and other open-source telephony solutions, growing the way the web did over the last ten years: a gold rush, so to speak. But not a rush of empty ideas like the Dot-com Meltdown. The key difference beween the web explosion and the VoIP explosion is simple. People had a hard time figuring out how to use the web to make money through valueless "content", but the service model for VoIP-based telephony is easy. Just provide connectivity for the commodity voice calling app, and people will pay.

Enabling VoIP through open-source tools is a cause that people are flocking to in droves. Since release Asterisk Management Portal, Coalescent's client inquiries have exploded. There are now several annual tradeshows for the VoIP-minded, and at least one magazine dedicated to the subject of Internet Telephony. If ever there was a time to get involved in this technology, it's now. Verisign's getting into it, and that's a pretty big indicator of things to come.

Have you used Voice over IP yet?