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Revolution In Phone Technology Approaching


Vonage In Print News

Revolution In Phone Technology Approaching, But Will Consumers Make The Switch?

April 12, 2004

By Greg Bonnell

TORONTO (CP) - A revolution in how telephone conversations are transmitted is as close as your Internet connection, but it remains to be seen if consumers will switch to sending calls via cyberspace.

Voice-over-Internet-protocol, or VOIP, is all the buzz in the tech community, with Bell planning to launch services this year and Primus and Telus already in the game. Cable companies Rogers and Shaw are working toward entering the market as well.

The technology digitizes voices and encodes them into packets of data which are then shot across cyberspace. Conversations take place in real time on the phone you already have, or something very similar, which is linked to a high-speed Internet connection. Calls can be made to other Net-enabled phones as well as regular phones.

Technology-wise, it far outstrips any experience you may have had using PC-based instant-messaging software to send voice over the Internet.

Pretty neat, but given that most people don't understand how traditional phones work, it's going to take more than a new system of delivery to convert the masses.

"If all you're talking about is your home phone line, the case has got to be 'Can I get a better deal?' " said Ian Angus of Angus TeleManagement Group from his Ottawa office. "If all you need is a basic phone service, you're probably not going to save any money with VOIP."

Where residential users can expect to save is in package deals. The "ultimate bundle" from Primus - with call answer, call waiting and all the other goodies at $34.95 a month - is about 15 to 25 per cent cheaper than traditional services. The manner in which Voip can deliver those extras is another bonus.

Existing phone services line up your messages in sequential order for audio playback, meaning you may have to listen to 10 messages before you hear the one you want. A fully realized Voip service can display your messages visually on a web browser by caller, allowing you to choose what calls you'd like to listen to.

"Using my web browser I can also listen to it, without having to pick up the phone," said Iain Grant of Montreal-based technology research firm Seaboard Group. "For anybody who uses the phone intensively, it's absolutely fabulous."

Voip also offers some distinct advantages when calling long distance. Customers receive a home telephone number that can travel with them wherever there's access to high-speed Internet service. If your son left Ottawa to attend school in Vancouver - but had a Voip account with an Ottawa area code - all calls made from the dorms at UBC would appear to be coming from the nation's capital. Therefore, no long distance charge.

Customers can also choose area codes regardless of geographic location. A person living in Toronto can receive a Montreal area code, cutting down on the cost of making calls to friends and family in Quebec.

Those calling outside of their area code will be charged a long-distance fee, as some calls need to leave the Internet and connect with local phone networks to reach their destination. So far the costs are low, with the U.S.-based Vonage service charging between two and four cents a minute for international calls.

And more bargains will come from deals that bundle Voip services with high-speed Internet and TV. Those kinds of packages will be made possible as cable companies seek a larger share of the telephone market, and phone companies look into delivering TV via the Internet.

While cheaper rates speak to the pocketbook, reliability remains a thorn in the side of Internet-based phone services. Traditional phones work in the event of an electricity blackout, Voip ones don't. And the new technology is having trouble providing 911 service. A Voip phone number isn't wired to one location, so if you dial the emergency number the system has no means of locating you.

Primus provides 911 access, but it's limited to the fixed location you've registered your account to. Subscribers who use their accounts away from home, or who choose a different area code than the one they live in, cannot access 911.

The fact that Voip looks like a phone and acts like a phone hasn't escaped the attention of the federal communications regulator. In a preliminary opinion released Wednesday, the CRTC said voice-over-Internet phone services should meet the same requirements, such as 911, as traditional telephone companies.

While it recognizes that the new technology may not initially be able to provide 911, privacy safeguards and other features, the CRTC said that Internet phone providers should "specifically and clearly advise potential and existing subscribers" of the limitations of their service, and provide such features "as soon as practicable."

In addition to those hurdles, Voip sound quality just isn't up to land-line standards.

"It's not bad, it's better than your cellphone by and large," said Grant. But when the Internet gets congested there's a noticeable drop in quality. "When 100,000 kids get home from school and start downloading files, you can actually notice the degradation on your Voip call," he said.

For all those reasons, it's unlikely the telecommunications industry will witness an immediate, mass consumer migration toward Internet phone service.

"I think that people are going to take Voip services for a while for novelty's sake," said Grant. But after a few months, or years, they might question why they're paying for two phones. And given the speed at which technology progresses, it's likely that Voip will clear its hurdles in the foreseeable future.

"No one says it's going to be easy, but that's what engineers are for," said Grant. "These problems can be solved."

This story also appeared in:
  • CBC News, 4/12/04
  • CJAD, 4/12/04
  • Canada.com, 4/12/04



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