Technology

The bits and bytes of voice

The Internet creates a new standard for telephone calls

WARREN CARAGATA August 24 1998
Technology

The bits and bytes of voice

The Internet creates a new standard for telephone calls

WARREN CARAGATA August 24 1998

The bits and bytes of voice

Technology

The Internet creates a new standard for telephone calls

The seemingly relentless changes spawned by the Internet are about to make their effects felt in yet another realm: the way a human voice is carried over telephone lines. IP telephony— a phrase only a geek could love—is already making its presence known as telephone companies and their competitors plan new networks and dream up new services. The new technology, in trial in Canada but already being used commercially in the United States and elsewhere, was one of the reasons telephone equipment maker Northern Telecom Ltd. of Brampton, Ont., recently paid $13.4 billion to buy Bay Networks of Santa Clara, Calif., which produces computer networking devices. And it may also help Rogers Communications Inc., as well as other cable companies, to use their extensive networks of coaxial cable, now used to deliver television signals, to offer residential telephone service as well, says Ken Engelhart, Rogers vice-president of regulatory law. The technology is quickly coming of age. Says Anil Amlani, senior vice-president of strategy and new business development at Toronto-based AT&T Canada Long Distance Service Co.: “Internet telephony is as inevitable as the coming of the millennium.” Behind the ungainly name, IP telephony is little more than the application of the same technology—known as Internet protocol—that directs traffic over the Internet and other computer networks to the telephone system. On the Internet, all data, whether e-mail message or video clip, move in small chunks called packets. Each packet contains not only the information being sent but also the address of the computer it is being sent to. Each packet moves independently along the network, being shunted along the best available route. The computer at the receiving end puts the packets in the right order and reassembles the data back into their original form.

Traditional telephone service works very differently. When some-

one calls someone else, switches open a circuit between the two phones and the circuit stays open for the duration of the call. Even during a long silence, the circuit remains intact. Phone company engineers looking at all these open circuits and the silences and pauses between words think it would be more efficient if they could squeeze in a lot of other calls. Internet telephony allows them to do just that, explains telecommunications consultant Ian Angus, president of Angus Telemanagement Group in Ajax, Ont.

The first use of Internet telephony came as people began to use their microphone-equipped computers and Internet connections to make long-distance phone calls, avoiding toll charges. The quality was poor, and still is, as voice packets sometimes get lost in Internet traffic jams, but the price was right. The next step was to allow people without computers to use their phones to make Internet calls. Companies in the United States and in countries such as Japan and Singapore, for example, provide so-called gateway services where someone can call a number from an ordinary phone and get a connection to the Internet. A computer digitizes the voice, breaks it into packets and sends them to another gateway at the receiving end that switches the call back to the phone system. In Canada, says Angus, such services have been slow to take hold, partly because of government regulations that require companies connecting to the phone network to pay connection charges to the phone companies. Kent Elliott, president of Vienna Systems Corp. in Kanata, Ont., which makes gateways and other IP telephony equipment, says even when quality may not be as good as a normal phone line, much cheaper costs make such calls attractive. To a grandmother in Korea hearing from her granddaughter, even a somewhat disembodied voice may be better than no call at all, Elliott says.

But the Internet itself will not be the route of choice for the coming generation of calls using IP technology. Those calls will, experts say, travel on private telephone company networks where routing and bandwidth can be controlled, providing high-quality calls.

The new technology also promises new services, and those services, say Elliott and AT&T’s Amlani, will be its biggest selling point. The same call could combine voice and video, or allow people in different locations to work on the same computer at the same time, talking to each other as they do so. “You’ll never want to go back to just a plain old voice call by itself,” says Elliott.

Beyond the hype and hope, Angus says he is not yet convinced that IP telephony will deliver what it promises in terms of network efficiency. But even if he’s right, he says he can still understand why the phone companies are paying so much attention: “Nobody wants to be left out of this if it might be the next big thing.” With all the fuss, it may well be.

WARREN CARAGATA