Whatever on Whatever!
The VON conferences are moving beyond Voice on the Net. In fact, we can send pretty much whatever we want over any transport available.01-Sep-2006
Updated: 09-Oct-2006

This is a version of my September 2006 column in Von Magazine . The magazine is now posting images of the pages instead of the actual text so I’m posting the original version here. You can view the printed version here.

VON now means Video as well as Voice on the Net. Ultimately we will just assume that we have a connectivity infrastructure. We’ll be able to use whatever transport is available to carry whatever traffic we choose.

I first wrote about Vonage in January 2003. It was exciting to be able to use the Internet to make a voice phone call without having to apologize for the quality. We had crossed a significant threshold. What I find most exciting was that it didn’t require anything special from the network beyond capacity.

Very simply, we could create conversations at the edge of a general purpose network. Vonage wasn’t the first to offer voice telephony – after all Jeff Pulver had been doing VON conferences for a while. But Vonage meant that VoIP was becoming ordinary – we could assume the network was capable of carrying voice.

VoIP is a challenge because we’re very sensitive to minor glitches in voice streams. We can put up with a lot if we don’t have a choice – it was amazing we could talk on the early cellphones. But we don’t need to compromise to use VoIP and it’s rapidly becoming better than classic phone calls.

Video is very different. I remember seeing ATT’s demonstration of their Picture Phone at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. It was amazing but no one really cared. You couldn’t even give those phones away. Strange – it’s the kind of product that everyone should want but no one used.

When I was commuting to Microsoft while living in Boston I setup a video connection between my home and my office … and only managed to get my family to use it once. After all, they know what I look like and would rather playing solitaire than feigning interest.

The Picture Phone showed off the capabilities of the Intelligent Network ATT was building. A video call could be compressed to 128Kbps and sent over a pair of paths.

While there is a commercial market for video conference, the larger market never appeared – it’s nice to have a video option for when there is a need.

We don’t think about the cost of the road when we drive – it’s simply infrastructure that we use. But bridges are expensive and governments do take cost into an account. But connectivity is very inexpensive to deploy compared with the value.

We won’t pay for special video network but we’ll take advantage of video if you can do it casually – just buy a camera and plug it in. You just assume that you have a transport available.

Instead of thinking of video phone calls, think of casually placing cameras so you can see traffic conditions before setting off to work.

The premier video application is television and this leads us to look for a future defined by high capacity broadband applications. But that misses the point – it’s just like asking for a video phone network. Video was enabled by having connectivity – modest speed is necessary but not sufficient.

I’m more exciting about equipping city trash containers to report when they are need to be emptied. It’s not a big deal but it’s the sum of these little things that affect our quality of life. Of course that same connectivity would allow your medical alert bracelet to call home on your behalf. Medical alerts are important yet we’re not going to do it unless we can assume connectivity.

Notice that I’ve been careful to say “connectivity” rather than “the Internet” or, “Internet” as many people refer to it as it were “television”.

All I need is a transport – then I can use Internet protocols to make a connection. I won’t want a service provider doing me favors – and expect to be rewarded for the added value. Transport is simple infrastructure. If we pay for our local infrastructure we have the incentive to make more capacity available without charging me a premium.

The FCC insists that we must buy services from carriers. It insists that the transports exist so the carriers can make money. Even if the carriers are neutral, we can’t create our own value. It’s a legacy of 1930’s socialism and shows contempt for the marketplace.

The bit transport is just infrastructure like roads and power line. We can use whatever transport is available to do whatever we choose.

Despite the FCC we are learning how to take advantage of opportunity and use any available transport. The choice is simple – the FCC’s moribund Regulatorium or WoW!