Hello? (Long Distance – Part 8)

TelephoneRupert Goodwin over at ZDNet UK in London poked a little fun at me in Rupert Goodwins’ Diary. His story, dated 10/2/2004, isn’t really from October like it looks. Not only do they drive on the wrong side of the road over there, but they also put their months and days backwards. Sorry Rupert, I couldn’t resist. Rupert was actually very kind to me in his story which correctly pointed out that sometimes technology fails at the most embarrassing times. In this case, I was talking to his colleague, Munir Kotadia, who wanted to discuss my views about network security, Windows, Linux, Opera, and other Internet technology related topics. Munir had sent me an email and asked if we could talk. I called him in London using my packet8.net IP phone. It is generally highly reliable — had a flawless and high quality call with Oslo, Norway this morning — but not always. Sometimes there is a pause. Not exactly sure why. The path from the Radio Shack cordless phone to the packet8 MTA to my LAN to my hub to my cable modem to Comcast to their router to the Internet to who knows how many hops across the Net to London to a PBX to Munir’s phone has a lot of possible points of failure. Possible, but not likely, it could even have been Munir’s phone.
In spite of my enthusiasm for VoIP, I realize that it will take some time for it to become pervasive. Not decades — but not in the next six months either. I was experiencing some sluggish network performance on the home LAN one day recently and decided to re-boot the router. This is something I don’t do very often (wish I could say the same for Windows XP). Later I realized that the Packet8 SIP phone service was not working and then it dawned on me that I also had to re-boot the Packet8 "terminal adapter" — a small box that connects to the home LAN. It wasn’t a big deal to unplug and replug the device and get things working again but it got me thinking about some of the things we take for granted with the POTS (plain old telephone system). 
We never have to re-boot any telephone equipment in our homes and I suspect that business telephone systems rarely require it either. In fact, even with a complete power outage, a $10 telephone plugged into the RJ-11 jack in the wall will usually still work — even during a massive power failure.

On the other hand, those who got rid of all their POTS phones and are dependent on one of the new SIP phone services, would be without communications unless they have backup power for their network equipment. And then there is your ISP — do they have backup power? You would hope so but I suspect some of the smaller ones don’t. And do the cable companies and DSL providers have fault-tolerant backup of their systems? During the recent failure of the power grid, I never lost telephone service and my electricity came back hours before my DSL service. The DSL modem had power but it could not connect to the telephone company equipment.
I think it is fair to say that home broadband connections are not as reliable as the POTS. Yet. Also, there important services – such as 911 — that are not generally available in the world of VoIP. Yet. It is easy to point out the numerous shortcomings, but let us not miss the bigger point (and I know that Rupert and Munir have not missed it) which has to do with the power of standards. The "grass roots", and the "community" are often underestimated. Just like the Internet and the Web in the mid 1990’s, VoIP is spreading rapidly. It is happening from the bottom up. It is not being throttled by any centralized bureaucracy or oligopoly. The gaps in services and reliability will be filled in through active global competition with funding from venture capitalists. The momentum is beginning to build.
The Demo 2004 Conference begins on Monday morning in Phoenix. I have a hunch I’ll see some new VoIP technology there.
Epilogue: Rupert made one small error in his otherwise excellent story. When Munir and I had lost our connection couple of times, he called me on my landline. The packet8 rate to London is two cents per minute. The only thing that beats that is when you get an inbound call on your landline. No charge.

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