There's no doubt that the Internet has revolutionized human communication, allowing global dissemination of text and graphics, all in a matter of seconds. The bulk of this takes place via the serving of Web pages, the transmission of email, and instant messaging. These three forms of communication, in comparison to one another in that order, allow progressively faster interaction between two parties. But now the fastest form of communication over the Internet does not use sight, but sound.
Recently I experienced, for the first time, participating in a telephonic conversation with someone, but without using a telephone or any telephone line. In fact, the conversation took place over the Internet, using what is commonly referred to as "Internet telephony", or, more technically, VoIP.
Nattering on the Net
What is this new method of communication? VoIP, short for "voice over IP", is the delivery of voice utilizing the Internet Protocol. This is accomplished by digitizing each person's vocal sounds in real-time, organizing them into discrete "packets", and sending those digital packets to the listener, who then hears the sounds created by reassembling all of the packets that arrive. This process typically involves both people using special VoIP handsets, or computer microphones and speakers connected to their systems' sound cards.
Just to give you an idea of the future potential of this technology, consider some of the statistics: Between 1999 and 2002, Cisco Systems sold one million VoIP phones. It sold another million in only 12 months after that period, from August of 2002 to July of 2003. The worldwide revenue for VoIP equipment from all companies was over $1.5 billion in 2003 alone. Moreover, only 10 percent of current voice traffic is now being handled by VoIP technology; but this could more than double by 2007, at which time it is estimated that there will be 7 million VoIP phones in use throughout the world.
Telephonic conversations over the Internet are an inevitable yet still remarkable use of the Internet Protocol. Naturally, this stands in stark contrast to traditional telephone service, which utilizes the proprietary circuit-committed protocols of the public switched telephone network (PSTN). More importantly from an economic standpoint, the global reach of the Internet means that VoIP-enabled long distance "calls" are just as cheap as local ones. As you can imagine, the ability of people to hold conversations while bypassing the plain old telephone service (POTS), is anything but music to the ears of the big phone companies.
The development and proliferation of VoIP has largely been driven by the convergence of voice and data networks. This shift is gaining momentum, and it is expected that there will be a lengthy but large scale migration from circuit-switched telephony services to Internet telephony. How that impacts conventional telephone service is yet to be seen. It may spur telephone companies to be more competitive and responsive to customers, or they may drag their feet as they did with their overall disappointing deployment of DSL in the face of broadband Internet access from cable companies.
Revenue-hungry governments are not too pleased, either. There are already efforts under way in the U.S., at multiple levels of government, to tax Internet telephony. Yet Big Brother needs to do something with those tax monies, and part of that includes keeping a close eye on the "private" conversations of American citizens. Law-enforcement organizations within the U.S. are just as concerned by the potential for encrypted voice communication over the Internet.
The Good Guys
But enough about bureaucrats and other suits attempting to make Internet telephony more expensive and less secure. What about those organizations trying to advance the technology and its use? Much credit goes to the VoIP Forum, a consortium of major equipment vendors, such as Cisco, VocalTec, and 3Com. Their goal is to promote the use of ITU-T H.323, which is the standard for sending audio (including voice) and video using IP. In addition, the Forum promotes directory service standards (so that users can more easily locate one another) and the use of touch-tone signals for automatic call distribution and voice mail.
In a more applied form, there is a growing number of commercial firms with hardware and software solutions that allow people to utilize VoIP telephony over the public Internet and on intranets within organizations. For instance, Avaya offers corporate customers a full IP telecommunications architecture, supporting telephony, messaging, call centers, etc.. Of greater interest to residential users, both Net2Phone and Vonage offer services for making local and long distance VoIP calls, as well as sending faxes, from one's computer.
If you are interested in trying Internet telephony yourself, then there are several services from which you can choose, in addition to the two mentioned above. For example, I tried Skype, which is a VoIP application currently free and in beta. In addition to downloading and installing the software, it requires a microphone and speakers (either separately, or combined together in the form of a headset) connected to your computer's sound card. Of course you will also need a connection to the Internet. You can expect much better performance using a broadband connection, as opposed to dial-up access.
After the painless installation, I was able to quickly create a local user ID, without providing any personal information, and then "call" a friend who had only needed to give me her Skype user ID. Both of us have cable Internet access, and the voice quality was terrific. You may find, as I did, that powered computer speakers make the other person's voice much richer, in comparison with the tiny speaker in a telephone handset. The only problem with Skype was the occasional dropped word, which results when both parties try to talk at the same time. Perhaps widespread use of VoIP in the future will break our habit of interrupting others!
If you would like to learn more about VoIP, the Web, as always, provides a wealth of information. For instance, the Computer Science department of Ohio State University maintains an excellent VoIP page, located at http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/~jain/refs/ref_voip.htm. It provides links to presentations, papers, organizations, working groups, vendors, standards, and other resources on the Web.
This may be the future of telephony: copper wires replaced by fiber-optic lines, handsets replaced by more comfortable headsets, ringing phones replaced by chirping computers, and high telephone bills replaced by low cost or free service. Sounds good to me!