Ring, ring, the happiest sound of them all

The happy sound of ringing phones has been part of everyday life for a while. Hard to imagine how things must have been like before phones came along. 1876 was the year that Alexander Graham Bell got his patent for the first phone. Establishing the public switched telephone network (PSTN) was indeed a huge step forward in bringing the world closer together. Say what you will about the PSTN but it is essentially reliable (if done right). In case of a disaster, the PSTN is probably the only option left standing after the power goes out. Phones have certainly come a long way from the rotary phones of yesteryears (that carry a strong whiff of nostalgia today). It doesn’t seem that long back when we had operator assisted calling with operators acting as “human switches,” manually completing circuits. Automated switching systems followed. From an analog system (POTS, Plain Old Telephone Service), the PSTN went digital with the advent of ISDN. And a new era was born.

Enter Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP): with protocols like the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) for signaling and others like SDP for describing the communication session, RTP for real-time media delivery, RTCP for call stats and so on. VOIP introduced a whole slew of new features, it was certainly transformational. Wideband audio stepped up audio quality. No longer just a simple phone, it became a computer masquerading as a phone. Though interoperability issues did rear their head. Different vendors’ VOIP platforms didn’t talk to each other readily. Serving as the intermediary is the PSTN. Multiple codec standards require transcoding to stay in sync (codec, which stands for coder-decoder, converts audio signals into a compressed digital format for transmission and back into an uncompressed format for replay).

Today the PSTN appears to be transitioning to an all IP network. How beneficial this change will be for customers is not really that clear though. On the other hand, carriers do stand to make several gains from the shift: Cost reduction, easing of tech staffing challenges, and so on. Then there are the regulatory advantages that carriers may be seeking. Regulations that have thus far enabled all Americans to have access to telephone communications regardless of income or where they lived.

End of the day, the unfettered ability to communicate is what this is about. Reducing the dependence on communication providers would certainly help the cause of unrestricted communication. After all the Internet is a public resource. Anyone should be able to use it in order to communicate. Providing a solution to the need for open communication seems to be the app model. Where anyone can just buy/download an app and get going.

Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) appears to promise this very benefit. Browser based calls with no plugins or software to install. Peer to peer communication. (Would have been perfect but for these pesky Network Address Translators (NATs) and firewalls. Need to deal with specialized protocols like STUN and TURN to overcome the NAT hurdle.) An open source technology stack that anyone can utilize. Leveraging the WebRTC APIs, one can build apps that deliver conferencing, voice/video calling, data transmission, and more. Use of SRTP (in lieu of RTP as in VOIP) ensures secure, encrypted communication. Snooping on VOIP calls is easier as the basic RTP is not secure.

Got to thank Google for making WebRTC available.

But this may not work very well if carriers sensing a loss of their phone/voice services increase rates for Internet access. Which is where the recent decision by the FCC to regulate the Internet as a utility should come in handy. Nationalizing Internet service does not seem that farfetched either. Like Medicare, Social Security… If the Internet has to fulfil its role as a catalyst for innovation, everyone needs to have access to it, not just those can afford it.

Ultimately communication should be a commodity, freely available to all. Much like web access, all that is needed should be an Internet connection. Commoditizing communication seems to have been Google’s strategy, clearly a brilliant one at that. Basically we are talking about bring your own, high quality communication system (BYOCS?). Making the technology stack available to the large community of web developers instead of relying on the smaller number of telecom and VOIP engineers. There appears to be close to 3 million people on LinkedIn with JavaScript in their profiles. Should really open the innovation tap, adding new and exciting ways to communicate. We are entering the world of real-time communication systems. That the phone as we know it will stay in its current form factor seems unlikely. Instead it will likely be a bunch of apps that could run on any device, enabling anytime communication from anywhere. How about making calls from the refrigerator? Hopefully app developers will not drop the ringing tone in order to signal an incoming call. Retaining the happy, familiar sound should provide some continuity and reassurance as we march into the new communications order.


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