Will an Earthquake Shake Internet Telephony?

by Moshe Yudkowsky

You may have heard the persistent rumors that the old AT&T network operated a series of highly-secured, highly-reliable telephone switches. That these switches were buried ten stories underground at strategic locations; that the knowledge about where these switches were located was closely guarded; that the switches were hardened to withstand a near-hit from a nuclear devices.

These rumors are true. Even the wall clocks in these underground locations are shock-mounted on springs so a near-miss won't shake them off the wall.

I thought of these switches as I read about yesterday's earthquake and how Internet services were disrupted. The earthquake occurred along a narrow corridor that houses all the undersea cables that connect Taiwan with Hong Kong; and the connections to Taiwan ultimately lead to the US. These cuts and others disrupted both Internet and telephone services across Asia and between Asia and the US.

I will be interested to see what the consequences are for Internet telephony. As companies scramble to restore service, what priority will Internet telephony services be given? Ordinary Internet data can travel by satellite; voice calls do best on wires; a logical choice would be to reserve bandwidth on the remaining cables for voice calls and move data with either lower priority or via satellite. This argues that we'll see long-term degradation of Internet telephony quality, until service is back up and running; and that could mean movement away from Internet telephony, which will be tagged as less reliable than classical telephony.

The other possibility: since Internet telephony can scavenge packets from any Internet connection, Internet telephony will gain in reputation as something that keeps working even when ordinary connections are unavailable.

Let's see what happens. It ought to be interesting.


2006-12-28 09:59:56
This is a very important point that you raise. But we have to realize that one of the reasons why IP telephony is cheap is because they don't go the extra mile to make it reliable in various scenarios.
2006-12-28 20:13:49
Speaking from personal experience (I live in Hong Kong), the only two applications that run reliably during these time are Skype and BitTorrent. I guess the P2P nature of these apps keep them online.
Of course the overlord AKA Google is always available :)
2006-12-28 20:30:03
How does traditional telephony travel when going across the ocean? Buried switches in the US don't guaranty voice quality on the lines between the switches.
2006-12-28 20:47:19
guarantee - sorry. You are eluding to bandwidth trade-offs of a packet switched network when contention occurs and QoS would have to be in place for that already for VOIP to work well. Does traditional voice "ride the satellite" or are there transcontinental cables for that too? I think the reality is that voice is going to ride on the Internet and like any system, it will have to adjust to whatever realities come along. The Internet was suppose to be designed to withstand nuclear war, able to "route around" problems. The real lesson learned here is there aren't enough cables?
2007-01-03 16:02:55
Well. Contract to what we think, VoIP doomed in first four hours. And it took couple hours for DNS to sync with others. Now it cut off every five minutes because of packet loss. It is a nightmare to support a VoIP server base in Asia while most of the clients are living in North America.