Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On the Progress of VoIP, 2006

On the Progress of VoIP, 2006

The week before Thanksgiving 2006 I was contacted by the editor of Information Technology, a China-focused magazine. Jim Bodgener was looking for a short piece on VoIP, so I suggested an overview of the topic, plus highlights of some trends we're seeing at SIPphone in the VoIP space. Without further ado, here's the story as it will appear shortly (don't think I'm jumping the gun here)...

Telephony enters new era
Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) offers choices, lower costs

Just as first the telegraph and later the telephone brought about significant changes in how society worked, communicated and evolved, so have computers and the internet opened up similar opportunities. The broadband internet, powerful laptops and computers are helping to shape our work and personal lives. In addition, there are cellular phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), gaming consoles, MPEG audio level 3 (MP3) players, and a myriad of other devices and technologies.

One example of agents for change is how the internet, file-sharing and MP3 technology has impacted the music industry. Another such influence is the emergence of a powerful new communications technology, called voice over internet protocol (VoIP). New ways to communicate are also emerging, such as instant messaging (IM), RSS feeds, blogging and converged telephony models, which blend VoIP, interactive media, IM video and other capabilities into a seamless experience.

VoIP was once exclusively the domain of multi-national corporations, with staffs dedicated to corporate telecommunications. Now VoIP allows voice signals to be carried over the public internet data channels, rather than private or government-owned telephone transmission lines. VoIP technology is very accessible as software that runs on a personal computer.
Calls made from personal computer to personal computer using VoIP are free because they travel over the public internet. Calls from the personal computer to regular landline and mobile phones have a small fee, because they need to hop back on to the traditional carrier networks to reach their final destination.

With its toll-free charges and worldwide usage, VoIP has proven to be a safe, secure, and inexpensive alternative to traditional phone services. While it was initially intimidating and inefficient a decade ago, VoIP's mass appeal now stems from easy-to-use software and services, rich feature sets and vastly improved quality – often better than cell phones. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide rely on VoIP technology to keep in touch with friends, family and co-workers.

Businesses, especially small-to-medium sized firms, have discovered that VoIP is a sensible, secure and cost-effective addition to their communications toolkit. Considerable money can be saved through VoIP by connecting remote offices and using its conference calling facilities. Smaller firms can compete with larger companies more efficiently, since VoIP enables better control of costs. New capabilities helping to make communications more efficient are file transfer, voicemail-to-email, one-click dialing, superior call history tracking, and call forwarding.

The latest new trends for VoIP are enhanced personal computer software, “call back”, wireless VoIP, and local number aliases.

Computer software for making calls is growing quickly, evolving to include features that extend and complement the primary voice calling function. The latest software includes instant messaging, file sharing, multi-user chat, and presence detection of persons being on or off-line. There are also whiteboard collaboration tools, video chats, and connectivity with other VoIP networks. Also on a business checklist are support for telephone switchboards (such as the free Asterisk PBX), and centralized billing. Leaders in this field are eBay's Skype (www.skype.com), Yahoo Voice (http://voice.yahoo.com) or SIPphone's Gizmo Project (www.gizmoproject.com).

“Call Back” is a popular term for an emerging internet-based system that makes it easy to use VoIP to carry traditional phone traffic. Put simply, users enter into an internet interface the phone number they want to initiate the call from, plus the other number they wish to call. When they initiate the call, the VoIP system first makes a call to the first number, and then connects to the other party's number.

The advantage of call back is that users are not tethered to their headsets and personal computers, and can still take advantage of the low calling rates that VoIP offers. A popular call back service is from JaJah (www.jajah.com). A practical business application has also emerged recently for call back with Google's recent announcement of “click-to-call” features in their classified ad system known as Adwords. Business search results can now include a phone icon which when clicked initiates a call back service that connects a prospective customer directly to the business.

One of the latest trends is the use of VoIP in a mobile setting as a complement or replacement for cellular services. “Wireless VoIP” capabilities are being introduced in phones at the top end of the market, such as the Nokia N80 Internet Edition phone (N80i). The N80i already permits internet access using wireless hotspots and includes VoIP calling through the Gizmo VoIP service from SIPphone. This integration makes calling using the internet with the Nokia N80 Internet Edition as easy as making a regular voice call, as the call is carried through a wireless local area network (LAN). Users can save considerable amounts of money and conserve cellular airtime minutes in the process.

People who travel a lot often incur significant monthly roaming and per-minute expenses on their cell phones. One answer that VoIP technology enables is called “local number aliases.” This is a service where contacts can automatically be assigned a local number that connects to a real phone number. Calls are charged at local instead of a long-distance rates, at considerable cost savings. One example of this kind of thinking is offered by RebTel (www.rebtel.com) which focuses on giving people low-cost international calls with a mobile phone from the country/location where they live. Since each party has a local number associated with their "real" number, the calls are charged at local rates; Rebtel connects them using VoIP.

The rapid evolution of VoIP and its impact on communications may be a barometer of how technology can positively impact individuals and societies as a whole. Conservative estimates are that over half of the world's broadband internet population regularly make VoIP calls, and that number is sure to increase as some of the trends noted above mature. Much like earlier inventions such as telegraphs and public telephony, VoIP is an enabling technology that can serve to spread the benefits of communications and stimulate growth worldwide.

By Kevin La Rue, marketing vice-president, SIPphone with Lauren Brunelle