Monday, January 24, 2005

Now Everybody Is In The Phone Business

Remember when Ma Bell was queen of the telephone business and that's where you got ALL of your phone services? There were no such things as CLECs, Competitive Local exchange Carriers, otherwise known as competition. Woe unto you if you dared to incur her wrath by so much as wiring in an extention phone yourself. Remember that? Or am I just revealing my age?

Things certainly have changed on the telephone landscape and they're about to reach the next tipping point, where everything suddenly and seemingly without warning morphs into something else overnight. If someone asks "Who's your phone company?", the most likely answer will be "What's a phone company?"

You might get your voice services from a traditional landline company like SBC or you might just blow off the whole landline thing and go completely cellular. Or, you might sidestep telephone based infrastructure and go VoIP or eventually even wireless VoIP.

Client/Server based VoIP has been at the forefront of the broadband phone revolution. Companies like Vonage, Packet8, BroadVox and IConnectHere provide the servers which hold the VoIP telephone directory, if you will, plus gateways to the regular public phone network. A large company might provide its own gatekeeper servers for that purpose. IP phones are the clients. Or you can use an Analog Telephone Adaptor (ATA) to turn a regular phone into an IP phone.

A newer wrinkle on this technology as been serverless or peer to peer VoIP pioneered by Skype in the UK. Instead of going through a central server, the phones participate in routing calls in addition to their usual telephone functions. Most of these "phones" are actually software running on PCs. First no phone lines. Now, no phones.

That's hardly the end of this journey, however. The evolution has been from regulated monopoly phone companies to regulated competitive providers to specialized telecommunications companies that offer alternative voice services such Internet Telephony and now... watch out ... the non-phone company phone company.

Who's that? A likely prospect is your cable TV supplier. They already have a wire coming into your house or business. VoIP technology easily allows cable companies to offer bundles of television, Internet access and local and long distance phone service for a single monthly fee. That's what's got phone companies shaking in their boots. So much so that SBC among others is in the process of fighting back by extending fiber to the home so they can offer TV over "phone" lines or the same bundle of television, Internet access and phone calls.

Both of these players should be looking over their shoulders at hosted and peer to peer VoIP companies, who should be watching out for the WiMAX wireless providers that will appear on the scene within the next year. Cellular providers also have something to be concerned about with WiMAX.

And then, completely out of left field, comes something altogether different. The rumor this week is that Google is entering the VoIP game. The idea would be that product and service ads would include a button or link that would let you instantly talk with someone from the company running the ad. Talk about impulse purchases! Who knows, that idea might extend to information providers or help desks. Browsing and conversation will merge. When WiMAX enables broadband to the automobile, the whole thing will go hands-free as well.

At the same time, corporations are moving toward hosted VoIP solutions, or in-house gatekeeper servers to run their own telephone systems. When combined with Computer Telephone Integration (CTI) tools now used by call centers, the stage is set to completely blur the line between what is a telephone call and what is computer information.

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