Of IP Communications and Broadband Reliability

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times by Randall Stross which discusses consumer VoIP services, the differences in quality between them and the general trend towards multiple services of lower reliability replacing a single service (PSTN) of extreme reliability.

What is interesting is comments by Comcast regarding the reliability of the company’s service as compared to Vonage. The cable company stresses that their quality is better. They go on to say, because they have control of the network, they can provide better service. This is a true statement of course — any internet telephony service can potentially be inferior to the quality of IP telephony — where packets do not flow across the public internet.

Then again, as broadband speeds get better and better, the quality of internet telephony improves as well. The good news for the world of IP communications is that broadband speeds are increasing over time.

The irony in the article is that during its writing, the power went out in Comcast’s network and this brought the cable modem service down with it. Of course this meant there was no voice service either.

I guess it goes to show you that even though IP telephony quality in many cases can sound far superior to the PSTN, the reliability of the public switched telephone network is something we should strive to emulate.

Now I don’t want to fuel the war of words between Vonage and Comcast, but it is worth pointing out that with service from Vonage you also get soft client support meaning that if you have a fire at your house or the broadband goes out, you can connect your phone wherever you have Internet access. Cable companies do not provide such a service.

This may seem trivial but it is really useful if you go on a vacation to a part of the world where telephone rates are astronomical and it is yet another way that IP telephony shows it can be more reliable than the PSTN.

This gets us to the next logical point and that is that prices have come down enough where it is now possible for small businesses to afford redundant broadband providers, ensuring their IP communications is actually more reliable than the PSTN lines it replaces. So as Stross points out, the concept of multiple providers of lower reliability comes into play.

But this has yet to happen in the consumer market and I am curious as to why. I wonder if we will get to the point where cable and DSL providers give us a $5/month option to become a backup service provider. Wouldn’t this be a great source of incremental revenue for them? Why the all or nothing attitude?

It seems to me that IP communications is still at an inflection point and within the next few years, it could become a form of communications with more inherent reliability than even the PSTN. This seems very logical to me because of the flexible nature of IP and the fact that there seems to be a race between WiMAX and BPL providers worldwide to give us new forms of broadband access.

It won’t happen tomorrow but we are certainly a few years away from a time when we can expect broadband service to be truly always-on and the concept of five 9s will go away to be replaced by 100% uptime. As this happens, obviously IP communications will benefit.

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