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What the Public Telephone System Lacks (Part 1)

Communicating is fundamental to our ability to function as a society and business community.  The “traditional” telephone system has served us well over the past decades, and while making significant progress from the days of cross bar switches, communications are edging towards a new threshold.  The term “VoIP,” or voice over Internet is really more than a cheap alternative to the “traditional” POTS (plain old telephone service), it is a basic change to the concept of how we communicate.

Pacific-Tier will begin a new series of articles exploring the introduction of VoIP into our lives.  We will focus on describing the technology in terms easy to understand, as well as present ideas on how you may use VoIP and Internet-enabled technologies in the future.

Part One. Bypassing POTS

(What the Telephone Company Doesn’t Want You to Hear) 

 “Let’s hook up on Friday around 11:00 and review our project.” 

“Sounds good – IM or voice?” 

“Well, ping me on Yahoo and we’ll decide.”

“Great – later…”

Still sound a bit cryptic?  Not if you are younger than 21.  Presence systems supported by AOL, ICQ, Yahoo, and Microsoft are part of nearly every student’s life, and rapidly becoming part of all our lives.  Nearly all presence systems have similar functions, including: 

  • Online real-time chatting

  • Application sharing

  • Voice conferencing

  • Video conferencing

  • Store and forward messaging

A single computer can support as many “chat sessions” as the user can mentally handle, including multi-person online conferencing.  The presence system does not care physically where you are – it only cares that you register your “presence” on the system (login), and that you announce to the rest of your community you are online and ready to chat.

So, the “chatter” may have simultaneous online discussions with person across the room, the state, the country, or around the world – the presence server is only interested in a valid user ID and login, not physical location.  As the Internet enables most presence and chat systems, you have a potential user base that represents any available Internet-connected user, from anyplace in the world.

Presence Invades the POTS World 

Voice and telephone companies have been watching presence and chat communities for quite a while.  Companies which have traditionally focused on supporting the Internet community, such as Cisco Systems, understand that Internet technologies (the packet world – see sidebar “What is a Packet?) have all the essential tools to provide not only a complete alternative for POTS, but also a tremendous value add to POTS. 

Let’s look at telephone as two basic requirements, the home phone and the business phone.  The home phone is used to allow families to communicate essential information within the family unit, as well as offer a communications medium to extend the family space to friends, conduct family business with the community, and for consumer to business activity.

The business phone is used to communicate within the business, among the business’ external community, as well as a tool to generate new business and relationships.

In a POTS world each communications device (telephone, mobile phone) has a unique identification number (country code)+(city/area code)+(exchange number)+(individual number), which may be identified as +1-808-995-4817 which would easily translate to (USA)+(Hawaii)+(Waikiki)+(number).  Mobile phone networks are similar, with the exchange number representing the mobile telephone company exchange, rather than a specific neighborhood.  In most cases the number is not portable, meaning you could not take your Waikiki number and retain it if you moved to Redondo Beach.

The packet world uses a similar system with “IP Addresses” indicating an Internet Service Provider (ISP) with an IP Address range, and individual addresses assigned to computers and attached networks based on the IP addresses allocated to that ISP.

That is where the similarity ends.  An IP address is really only a way to bind a person or application to a location, and that location may be temporary.  This means every time you connect your computer to your home dial-up line, a cable Internet connection, and wireless hotspot – regardless of where you connect yourself to the Internet, the only significant factor is who you are when you log into the network.

Thus you can collect email from virtually any terminal in the world – the email program only cares that you can pass a login with User ID and password.  Yahoo’s Instant Messenger only cares you login with a Yahoo ID and password, it does not care which computer you use when logging in, or what your location, ISP, or IP address is, other than to acknowledge your current location or presence.

If you understand that telephone and voice can be represented by conversion to a digital signal, you can also understand the voice or audio can be chopped up or segmented into packets.  The Internet itself is a packet technology, and is very well suited to transporting packets from any location to another location it can identify with an IP address.   Every application creating a packet has a source IP address (SIP), as does every destination (destination IP address – DIP).

Your application service is designed to be “presence aware,” knowing who among your community is available for real time communications, or if not real time communications for “store and forward” communication (like a voicemail message).  The communications application will then direct your communication packets from your SIP to the DIP, your other party’s application will decode the voice packet into an audio signal, and voila’ – you have a conversation.

Thus, once you determine a colleague or friend is available for a voice conversation through their network “presence,” and has an application available which allows them to participate in an voice call, you can initiate a call with them through the packet network (Internet) which can completely bypass all traditional telephone switches.

Application “clients” supporting this type of voice conversation include both Microsoft Network (Windows and MSN Messenger), Yahoo Messenger, iConnecthere (Delta 3), X-Lite (used with services such as Pulver’s Free World Dial), and SJ Phone. 

Don’t be too concerned if this is confusing – the  technology and VoIP industry are evolving at such a rapid pace the next year will be confusing to just about everybody.  Telecom analysts are having trouble dealing with packet voice systems, state regulators are fighting with the FCC and courts over how to regulate VoIP, telecom companies are scrambling to understand how to incorporate VoIP into their planning – and most important, the users of telephone and VoIP services world wide are trying to understand the impact of VoIP to our business and lives. 

In Part 2 we will look at packet technologies a bit closer, exploring the concepts and logic behind the differences in traditional POTs and packet voice.  In future segments we’ll further look at the convergence of interactive media and services on to packet technology, and build some opinions on how this will changes our business and personal lives.

Your comments and opinions are welcome – please send a note to John Savageau at Savageau@pacific-tier.com.  

Copyright 2009

Pacific-Tier Communications