VON Visions: VoIP: A Carrier's Best Friend
Carries may die by VoIP but they also live by VoIP01-Jan-2005

Carriers need IP to survive but can they survive IP?

Voice over IP is about more than cheap phone calls - it shifts the definition of telephony to the edge. A phone call is not a service, it's just a technology. We've long been able to use VoIP to reduce the cost of phone calls but there wasn't a large market until the quality of the connections reached parity with traditional telephony.

Now that we can rely on VoIP, there is price competition, but that's not enough; the carriers are starting to provide features such as web-based management for your phone calls. They're even retrofitting these onto traditional PSTN services as with Verizon's IOBI.

Even if it's not just about price, the cost of phone calls is important, especially to large companies which can afford to invest in technologies in return for reduced costs. The ability to treat their world-wide phone system as a single entity is a bonus.

Cost savings are most important to those companies whose telephone costs are the highest, namely the carriers themselves. Even there, it's about more than cost; it's also about managing their vast network. The Telcos have already pioneered digital packet networks with their SS7 (Signaling System 7) implementations.

SS7 shares the same roots as the Internet and its predecessor, the ARPAnet. The main difference is in the assumption of limited network capacity. Rather than relying on statistics, a call is set up by sending packets through the network to see if a path is available and then reserve it.

Good engineers rethink a problem when necessary. On expensive transoceanic lines, they must rely on statistics for sharing the connection. The reserved path is only probably available for the conversation's duration.

SS7 inherits the Telco security model which puts up a wall around the network and trusts every element within the network and none outside. Any breach allows full access to the network. In 1971, Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes had a prize-a whistle that emitted a 2600 hertz tone-which happened to be the secret password for the phone network because earlier technologies didn't allow anything more complex. SS7 removed the 2600 cycle loophole and added a middle tier of "sort-of-trusted" technology, but it's still a problematic model. Services like voice mail could be implemented by stationing computers around the network but outside the low level transport.

Unix was developed by Bell Labs after they dropped out of the Multics projects. The Unix systems that populated the phone network are essentially the same that we use today. Windows is also a descendant of Multics though not as directly.

The telephone network is just another computer application. IP is just another vital technology. Not only does it allow the network to be run more efficiently, it also allows it to be managed more effectively. Since IP is just another transport, it is often used to deliver SS7 messages to customers. Technologies like the DNS are more efficient for looking up (translating) numbers into paths. "ENUM" is simply a branch of the DNS that contains phone numbers.

The Telcos are not alone-the CableCos are also finding that IP is a transport of choice for video. With IP there is no difference between a Telco or a CableCo or, for that matter, a CellCo.

The provider's identity doesn't matter - I can use it for audio, or video, or data, or whatever I think of. At CES I've even seen scent dispensers - maybe John Waters' Smell-o-Vision will make a comeback.

IP is indeed the carriers' best friend - it allows them to keep up with the times and make their network work (not just run it more efficiently) as they face increased demands on their services. They might protest things like number portability, but this is no longer a big deal - I remember watching metal punched cards run through a sorter as the machine tried to figure out how to route a phone call. Now just it's a few microseconds of table lookup.

The Telcos will try to resist ENUM and other mechanisms that allow intrusion into the heart of their network but such efforts are ultimately futile. The inconsistencies are simply too great - with IP the phone network is a fiction as is the regulatory system fixated on the accidental properties of society and technology in the 1930s.

The carriers have no choice - they need IP to survive but they cannot survive IP.