Ern Worthman, Technology and Editorial Director

For what seems like an eternity I've been hearing the vertical markets tout the virtues of voice over the Internet protocol. The first time I heard it, it was supposed to do in the Bells and obsolete long distance call charges. That was then, this is now, and VoIP hasn't gained much ground.

What got me to thinking about this (in a somewhat serious fashion) was that I've been hearing about some attempts to give VoIP over wireless links, mainstream credibility.

OK, time to get serious. VoIP is not ready for prime time, period! Here is a quote from a well know analyst group. I'll keep the source it a privilege of the press (well, I am press, sort of....). But I need to pick on it a bit.

March of 2004: "If this works [mobile VoIP] as well as they say it does, they could move closer to the goal of integrating messaging and voice. While there is no true 'killer app' for VoIP, there is a focus on presence, with the ability to gather, use and manage communications devices and infrastructure."

Hmmm..."if this works" and "there is no true 'killer app' for VoiP;" and there is a focus... — a bit vague, don't you think? VoIP hasn't proven itself as a "no-brainer" (which is needs to be). Voice over the Internet should work as well as voice over copper and voice over wireless (well, voice over copper at least). Now, there is noise for WVoIP (wireless VoIP), VWLAN (VoIP over WLAN), and WVoIP (WLAN VoIP).

It is fairly common knowledge that VoIP systems are fraught with issues. VoIP is implemented differently depending upon the vendor. One vendor's implementation isn't always friendly to the next vendor's implementation. Hardware is an issue as is QoS. In short, VoIP only works reasonably well in tightly controlled systems with tightly controlled tunnels, or in single point to point links (like a regular connection between you and your parents, for example).

Doing some scrounging I found a Luxembourg-based company called Skype Technologie offering one of the latest WVoIP products, called PocketSkype. PocketSkype is designed for a Wi-Fi broadband wireless local area network connection. Hoping, with all available phalanges crossed, that this is a decent mainstream application, alas, I am disappointed. According to an evaluation of the software from another well-know analyst, "Because this software is based on peer-to-peer technology, the service is limited to small groups of users. If you can't call anyone outside of your group, that certainly limits the appeal. Who you can talk to is what it's all about, and the big wireless carriers are still working on that." So, if that is the best the VoIP technology has to offer, we've got a long, rocky ahead.

Ok, moving on. On the wireline side, there is one heck of a battle brewing over VoIP. The government is presently taking a hands-off stance, calling VoIP an Internet-based information service as opposed to a communications service. This has been interpreted to mean that companies providing VoIP services are not subject to state and local taxes, as wireline telephony providers are.

The phone companies stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars if nothing is done. They believe VoIP should be subject to the same rules as circuit-based technology. Carriers are pushing regulation, because VoIP changes the game in terms of how voice services are delivered. Then, there are the state governments, which stand to lose a lot of money – billions of dollars, in fact — if adoption rates increase as they have been projected to do.

This makes VoIP a hot commodity. And I'm willing to bet that WVoIP issues are the same for the wireless carriers.

But, given the present state of affairs of VoIP, from hardware, to government to carrier to confusion, VoIP isn't ready for prime time. What little experience I've had with it (mostly from an Internet perspective, trying it out among contemporaries and friends) I'm not real impressed. I've only been satisfied with, maybe one in twenty VoIP calls that I've made. For the rest, the quality is extremely inconsistent, the connections are unreliable and, to use a distinctly scientific term ... the whole setup is flaky.

Now, on the wireline side, extrapolating all of this to the mobile infrastructure (where my successful call rate isn't much better) make the rise over the run of the challenges looks might steep.

They (two guys in Detroit) said that 2004 is going to be the year that VoIP goes mainstream. I (one guy in Denver) say they are wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, it isn't convenient yet. What is convenient is picking up a receiver, dialing and talking. Second, it's too restrictive. With landlines I can virtually call anywhere, anytime, and it's cheap. With mobiles — well we accept mediocrity for the sake of convenience. With VoIP, I don't think the general public is going to buy it's limited applicability and narrow hardware/software channel. Like I said earlier, it's gotta be a no-brainer. And we should let the landline players slug it out for a while. Helps clear the path.

So, like a lot of other novel applications being thrown out to see if it sticks, it does, but not well enough. There are always early adopters for just about everything. And you can please some of the people all of the time. But WVoIP? For now, let's concentrate on getting data right.