You would think nowadays that all communications should have migrated to the Internet but, despite the rich media applications and services offered, the humble PSTN phone line is hanging on in there. The main reasons for this are that fixed-line call costs have fallen significantly in recent years and the PSTN offers much better reliability than equivalent Internet voice services. It also provides consistent voice call quality and the phone still works when the power goes off (although many people now use only DECT wireless handsets which mean that this is not the case). Not everyone has a broadband connection either and plenty don't live in an area with mobile phone coverage.
Costs are likely to call further as BT pushes for a reduction in mobile termination rates but, the future of the ubiquitous PSTN copper pair is certain. New technologies like Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) will make it obsolete and will provide multi-line voice and video phone capability and SuperFast Broadband over optical fibre technology, using IP-based networks.
With this as a given, it would be mad not to consider a fully IP-based comms infrastructure in our new home. The key issues then become what physical devices and what communications services should be considered and deployed. The way things are working at the moment, some services tie you to specific handsets and communications devices in the home but, there are plenty of standards to help avoid this situation. One other thing we cannot ignore, is the continued impact that mobile network operators and services will have on fixed line communications in the home. There are many households in the UK with just mobile phones.
The key communications requirements as we see them are:
- A method for handling incoming telephone calls is required such that call routing can be managed.
- Calls can be answered on any device in the home and calls can also be routed and transferred to the right devices in or out of the home.
- Making calls over the Internet is a key requirement.
- Support for multiple lines and 'numbers'.
- Support for calling between zones/rooms in the house/garden.
- Support an extensible and feature rich message capability, with voice and video answer machine.
- Support a 'straight to answer machine' mode for times when you want peace and quiet.
The most important standard in supporting 'voice as an application' over IP is the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). SIP enable voice sessions to be established by software and hardware devices (end points). The sessions are not limited to voice and can include video, conferencing, IM and many other communications methods.
Many telecommunications providers support SIP servers but less provide a PSTN gateway, to enable SIP sessions to connect through to mbile networks and the PSTN network. Annoyingly, in the UK most providers require you to use a new 'Internet' number and do not allow use of your existing PSTN home phone number. We are hoping this will be changing in the near future though.
In the UK, an example of this service is the BT Broadband Talk.
In alphabetical order ...
Google Voice (Wikipedia) is a service that provides you with a new number, that sits in front of all of the existing devices (mobile phone, PSTN line, etc.) that you currently have. It is this new number that you then give to all your friends and relatives and all incoming calls then pass through the Google Voice platform. allowing you to configure how those calls are then handled. The flexibility is compelling and the configuration may result in trying devices in turn or ringing them all simultaneously. The service also comes with its own messaging platform and answer machine, with voice message transcription (speech to text conversion).
Outbound calls can be made via software or hardware and are then routed by the Google Voice platform. Outbound calls on your mobile are made to the Google Voice platform via a Google Voice application, which then provides the data to enable the second 'leg' of the call to be established with the intended destination. The main appeal of Google Voice is that outbound calls to local numbers and other mobiles are free (for now). Because Google subsidises the service via advertising and Google411 (US only service), it has limited the intial take-up and the terms and conditions currently prohibit business use.
Google Voice is a relatively new service and is not really available in the UK yet. The currently service has evolved slightly, to reduce Google's costs and it will continue to evolve further. The enforced use of a totally new number is not appealing to everyone.
Google's long term plans are to ensure all calling goes over the Internet by installing a Google Voice application on mobile devices (something Apple are fighting on the iPhone). This removes their network termination and interconnect costs, and better supports their free calls model. This is the nightmare scenario for the mobile network operators as it basically removes their voice call revenue stream and turns them into bit carriers. In addition it places greater load on their 3G data networks. The mobile network operators are stcuk between a rock and a hard place and are actually playing into Google's hands with their planned roll-out of 4G mobile networks.
Google's ultimate play has yet to be exposed though. Voice calls are just the initial target of their long-term strategy and 'voice as an application' is just the first phase of their attack. Google messaging services will target existing SMS and MMS capability. Essentially, all you will need from your mobile operator in the long term is a data connection. Voice calling will be enhanced, video chat capability added and a whole suite of advanced communications, including high-quality (maybe stereo or even CD quality) sound, augmented reality, etc. Once the application is on the device and in use as the primary interface, the user base is essentially captured. Google's Android operating system is another way to ensure that this end goal also occurs sooner rather than later.
One reason why you wouldn't want to provide Google with this level of control over you life is that their track record for reliability is not good. The underlying Internet network does not help this and is largely out of Google's domain and hence their control. Perhaps the biggest reason for avoiding a Google provided solution though, is that they offer no support to speak of. There is no one you can phone when it all goes wrong, as many a Gmail user has found out. But the truth is that for the majority, a best endevours effort will do and telco grade infrastructure is a luxury few will want to pay for.
Skype is a peer-to-peer communications service that enables, messaging, voice calling, video calling and conferencing over the Internet. Communications between Skype users are free but calls that terminate on landlines incur a call cost. It is particularly appealing for international calls as the call rates to landlines are often much lower than traditional telecoms providers. Over a good network connection the call quality can be fantastic as Skype uses clever technology to adapt call quality to the bandwidth available. Over slower networks the quality is not so good.
Skype provide a number of chargeable add-ons, including a phone number and a voice message box. Skype software clients are now available on a wide range of devices including PCs, iPhones, Android devices, etc. It is also possible to get USB headsets, Skype compatible wired and wireless phone handsets.
VonageVonage a low-cost phone company that offers 'unlimited' calls within the UK and around the world, for a set monthly fee. Call plans start at £5.99 a month. Instead of using a physical landline, Vonage works by using your existing broadband connection. They supply an adaptor that sits between your router and a normal PSTN telephone. This measn you can also reuse existing wireless DECT handsets and base station.
Line Powered PSTN Phones
If you have a PSTN phone line, you need at least one of these! These are the only phones that will continue to work during a power cut.
Cordless DECT Handsets & Technology
Cordless Wifi SIP Handsets & Technology
One of the downsides of these devices is the battery life. Wifi uses a lot of power.
This section will cover devices that span several technologies such as PSTN + Skype phones.