VoIP suffers identity crisis
Enterprise network or PC application?
The other thing that was mentioned "ad nauseam" was VoIP over Wi-Fi, a dream of many of the companies present, because a serious offering on this front could represent a threat to future wireless phone networks.
Wi-Fi voice would cannibalise the mobile experience and every speaker in a dedicated session on the subject listed the same reasons why it just wouldn't happen yet; quality of service needs to be embedded in Wi-Fi chips, and that won't happen until 802.11e is ratified, roaming needs to become automatic and ubiquitous, just as authentication needs to be managed on a SIM card and made foolproof yet simple. Battery life was also cited as a genuine concern here that would take several years to overcome.
The VON audience of mostly operator and equipment maker personnel were asked when they thought all wireless networks would interoperate and hand off to one another and they mostly voted for sometime in 2006/7. The were also asked if WiMAX would be important in this process, and only one hand went up to say no, with an overwhelming number aware that new wireless networks were on there way, built around IEEE 802.16 technology. British Telecom's BluePhone experiment was naturally discussed, and the fact that this contradicts every speaker's view in terms of obstacles and timeframe.
Bluephone is planned to bring the best of both worlds for both voice and data calls through the same devices, at broadband speeds. Whenever customers are within reach of a BT wireless access point in their home or office, they will be able to connect at the best available speed and quality, through the BT network. If they move out of coverage range, they will seamlessly link to a Vodafone cellular GSM or 3G network for voice and data, giving them the best available connection wherever they are.
Project Bluephone has undergone trials with 50 users over the past two months and the technology is now proven says BT. Now it is to be brought to market by BT in close collaboration with Alcatel, Ericsson and Motorola. A 'soft launch' involving more than 1,000 users is planned for this summer, with a full launch later this year. BT will include its own hotspots that it is rolling out in place of its fixed public phone boxes. Vodafone is pretty happy to do all this because it has weak network coverage in many residential areas and this will be taken up with home Wi-Fi networks and routed to the wires, and so this is really a way of getting BT to shoulder the work-load around residences.
BT in turn is facing as many as 20 per cent of UK homes not having any kind of fixed line and this is its way to stop the rot. At home, where congestion on a broadband attached Wi-Fi network is under the customer's control this is fine and it will work. At the office where a wireless LAN can be set up with an expensive proprietary quality of service protocol on a central switch, this will work. But out in the world of hotspots, the Bluephone will probably just make Vodafone money, for all the reasons that the VON discussion group highlighted.
As a result of so many references to Skype and in turn to the key protocol of SIP throughout the days at VON, there was naturally a lot of attention on Zennstrom once he began to talk.
If Skype is a revolution, Zennstrom is the revolutionary. It uses the Joltid peer to peer network which he also wrote, and this allocates certain logged-on machines in the Joltid network, as supernodes. These supernodes can retain elements of key encrypted information, such as the directory of 13 million Skype users, in a distributed data-base, complete with redundant copies.
Switch off a supernode and more are re-established. As a result Skype can give away free telephony because it has no central server overheads, does no switching, and needs no central billing. It will launch a prepaid Skype-out service soon, whereby a discount calling service will offer Skype customers a cheap way of letting their phone calls emerge into POTS.
"Not all calls can be to another computer and someone you know," said Zennstrom. "You have to call a taxi or order pizza sometime." Zennstrom also said that he would be giving out phone numbers to people in most countries which were local numbers to use with Skype, so that people on POTS could call Skype numbers. Would he make Skype open-source? No - that would make its strong 1024 bit encryption and security vulnerable: "We could do it but only if we re-engineered the way it works and we don't have the time right now." But he would open an API.
Zennstrom pointed out that for making money Yahoo! had an ARPU of about $9.5 per annum and that his approach would be similar. Then the key question was asked, when would he make Skype inter-operate with SIP? "If you interconnect to SIP based systems, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link and I don't think we will do that until SIP systems are better."