VoIP is rapidly becoming a household name. While the technology is mature, the transport reliability is not. The five nines of reliability bragged about (99.999% uptime) might be better represented as nine fives (55.5555555%). This is an exaggeration, but the point is that many of the providers we interact with at webVoIP have at least one single point of failure in their networks. Racks of equipment with dual power supplies, fault tolerant drives, backup equipment and servers; all connected by one Ethernet cable.
In addition, gone are the days of draining trunk groups to clear lines, a quick reboot is the solution now. Granted switches no longer take forty five minutes to restart, but these little outages can happen at inopportune times. Wire wrapped connections, while tedious, was much more secure of a physical connection than the modular plug connections on the Ethernet connections so common now.
The hardware is generally stable, but the software for the edge and VoIP routers is subject to several kinds of outages. The first common software related outage is due to a software bug. In general the routers recover from these errors by restarting, resulting in a short outage. The second kind of outage is due to operator error. A user enters a configuration into the wrong interface, accidentally shuts down an interface, or perhaps is working in the wrong device altogether. This human related outage can last much longer.
The most dangerous kind of outage is not always a complete outage, but rather a reduced ability to provide service known as a Denial of Service (DoS) attack. Denial of service can happen via Internet viruses or worms, or a directed DoS attack on a specific service such as Web access or VoIP. This sort of outage can last for a few minutes, hours, or sometimes days.
These facts are usually disclosed to the users, and most of the current users of this technology are technically sophisticated and understand this. However, now that you can buy a VoIP terminal in Best Buy or Radio Shack, these terminals will increasingly be in the hands of consumers who do not understand the difference. In addition, in an emergency, one may not stop to think about which phone they are picking up (assuming they still have a fixed line). The technical abilities of these newer customers is best described by the first question asked by our Internet provider, “Is the power light on?”
VoIP is a technology that is changing the face of communications, pushing voice communications towards being free. Not totally free, but in the sense of once a person has access to the network, they can call as much as they want. This paves the way for video services and other things that have been talked about for some time, that are not a reality.
The providers, especially the larger retail providers of VoIP seem to be building in some redundancies and contingencies. Some of them do not yet understand all the complications associated with trying to handle VoIP calls behind firewall routers and other such things, however the demand for quality VoIP services will push the providers of the hardware and software to integrate these things better.
The largest bottleneck in this process is the Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP in many cases does not want VoIP on their network. While VoIP requires less bandwidth than a normal phone call, it requires more processing power. There is not processing capacity on the existing Internet to handle the packet processing necessary if everyone were to convert. More importantly, the small and medium size ISPs often do not have the network reliability to provide retail “always on” phone service.
So is regulation the answer? Today, pretty much anyone with a router and an Internet connection can provide Internet services, including VoIP. This is not the case with telephone service.