Trends in Internet and Wireless Technology

As William Gibson says, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference focusing on advanced Internet technology in Miami, where there was a serious amount of inequitable distribution of technology. What I saw and heard there convinced me the next couple of years are going to be amazing.

The main focus on the conference was Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP; pronounced “v-oi-ep”), with mobile wireless as a subtext. VoIP, as the name suggests, is the use of computer networks to carry voice conversations. Or, more specifically, phone calls.

Many Internet users are familiar with the Net2Phone service, an early implementation of a VoIP solution. Download the software onto your computer, set up an account, and pay 5 cents or so a minute to talk to anyone anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the calls often sounded choppy and like the other party was “talking through a waterfall”. In many ways Net2Phone gave VoIP a bad name.

VoIP technology has advanced considerably in the last few years, however, to the point that a VoIP call can now be as good as a regular Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN) call, also known as Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS). Rather than the delays introduced because of a regular Personal Computer doing compression/decompression (CODEC) in software, modern devices use dedicated hardware to do the job almost instantly.

CISCO and 3Com were the early pioneers of hardware based VoIP services. And although the quality was excellent, the cost for the infrastructure was extremely expensive, with a VoIP handset costing upwards of $700 US. This is changing; a number of new players have entered the market with handsets retailing for less than $200 US.

With the new pricing, VoIP begins to become price competitive with traditional Private Branch Exchange (PBX) solutions deployed in offices. Additionally, the VoIP solutions have the additional advantage of being able to use the Internet to bypass long distance phone call charges. It is estimated as much as 30% of all international calls are now carried by VoIP; by 2006 this could be as high as 70%.

Using an IP PBX can also greatly increase the flexibility of a phone system compared to a regular PBX system. Rather than having phone extensions hardwired to a physical location, a VoIP phone can be placed anywhere a network connection exists. This makes Adds, Changes and Deletes (ACD) required for staff changes quick and easy.

More advanced IP PBX systems even take this a step further, allowing people to move between locations and have their extension follow them. A person sits down at a desk and enters their ID into VoIP handset. Instantly that phone becomes theirs; someone calling their extension have no idea they’ve moved. These features can even extend to contacting a person’s cell phone automatically if they’re on the road, or at their home if they’re telecommuting that day.

While VoIP offers great flexibility and cost savings to users, the fear of lost fixed-line and long-distance revenue are causing great consternation to the phone companies. Several are lobbying the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) arguing the VoIP should be made illegal, or at least the providers should be forced to pay settlement fees to the Telcos. It is expected the FCC will rule in favor of allowing VoIP to continue, however, as it’s a form of competition sorely needed. Breaking up ATT didn’t result in the desired competition, but VoIP proving itself as being a real alternative.

Another area which will be interesting to watch over the next while is advanced wireless telephony. So called G3 and G2.5 cellular networks are being built out which allows data transfers in addition to voice traffic. With a new generation cell phone or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), email, photos and even programs can be sent and received from a hand-held device in addition to phone calls.

The Blackberry was the first device in this category, which allowed people to receive and send e-mail from a device only slightly larger than a pager. Gaining the nickname “Crackberry” because of its addictive nature, people quickly could not live without the ability to check and reply to their e-mail where ever they happened to be. I’ve known people who refused to go anywhere Blackberry coverage wasn’t available. (Admittedly, these people need to get a life…)

The new generation of wireless services finally allow the convergence of the cellphone and the PDA. In fact, users will have the option of using their PDA as their cell phone, or vise versa. Or if they want to keep the units discrete, they will be able to exchange information by way of the Bluetooth piconet standard.

At the end of the day, handheld devices will likely speak several different wireless protocols. When in the field they will connect by way of the cellular network. When they finds themselves inside a Wifi network coverage area, they’ll communicate that way, saving the cellular charges. And when they’re at their user’s desk, they’ll update themselves via Bluetooth.

The age of always available, ubiquitous mobile connectivity is almost upon us. The upside is we’ll always be able to stay in touch. The downside, of course, is the Crackberry syndrome — never being able to avoid checking new e-mail. As they say, be careful what you wish for — you might just get it.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.