COMPANY TO WATCH:
Founded in 2005, Vivox provides voice chat services for online games and virtual worlds. Supporting over 25 million users in more than 180 countries and delivering over 3 billion minutes of voice chat a month, the Vivox Network claims to be the world's largest voice network for gamers.
In 1995, VocalTec launched the world's first commercial VoIP application. The downloadable app was called Internet Phone, or iPhone for short.
The founders of Skype, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, managed to solve these problems with the peer-to-peer technology they had pioneered at Kazaa Media Desktop. Their technology employed decentralized routing, in which every node—in this case, a subscriber's PC—uses an encrypted channel to keep track of all other users and resources in the network, sort of like opening a tunnel through the firewall and NAT barrier. Wideband codecs—compression systems that capture a wide range of frequencies—enabled Skype to deliver better audio than a fixed-line telephone could manage.
The service caught on fast. In September 2005, Zennström and Friis sold the company to eBay for US $2.5 billion. Zennström, Friis, Berninger, Cohen, and Haramaty were part of a new breed: twentysomethings with the vision and technical brilliance to overturn the established order. Another member of that club was Mark Spencer, who had started up Digium, in Huntsville, Ala., a company that provided Linux tech support, while he was still a computer engineering student at Auburn University.
Spencer balked at paying tens of thousands of dollars for a telephone system—that is, a PBX, or private branch exchange—for his start-up company, so he wrote his own software-based switchboard. He called the software Asterisk, after the Unix symbol for "everything." It was only a few years later, in the early 2000s, that it dawned on him that people were more interested in the phone system than in the tech support service.
For the traditional telephone companies, this was the second blow of the old one-two punch: First they'd had some of their business siphoned off by VocalTec and ITXC; now Digium's open-source software was cutting the cost of equipping a telco in the first place. Now pretty much anybody could set up shop as a VoIP provider.
"Telecom products were really expensive, and there was a real need for customization, especially in other countries [outside the United States]," Spencer recalls. "All these things lined up just right, so that when Asterisk came out, it was able to win a lot of attention."
In 1932, AT&T's bean counters had the first and last word on telephonic voice quality: They said they wanted the worst quality that paying customers would tolerate. So Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Harvey Fletcher (who would later invent an electronic hearing aid) truncated the high and low frequencies—below 300 hertz and above 3300 Hz—in the process removing subtlety and emotion from telephonic voices. Fletcher's legacy continues in all the real telephony networks in the world, and it's not the only throwback. In the 15 years since Cohen and his peers decided to take on the telecom giants on their own turf, the user experience has hardly changed. A phone call is much the same as it was in 1994. Only the price has fallen—and not fast enough to prevent other communications media, like e-mail and instant messaging, from squeezing out voice. For voice to get back in the game, Berninger argues, it must offer more.
It could, above all, offer better voice quality. Today's networks can do the job because they're far more advanced than the ones that carried Cohen's first croaking attempts at packetized telephony. According to Skype's chief technology officer, Jonathan Rosenberg, the highest-quality voice calls last around 31 minutes on average, compared with 21 minutes for the low-quality ones. This phenomenon is forcing the traditional telcos to fall in line and adopt VoIP themselves. Operators can no longer get away with the attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Ironically, for a technology that started life with a dependency on wires, nowhere is the evolution of voice services happening at a faster pace than in the wireless world. Mobile phone connections are racing past the 5 billion mark worldwide, and the telco community is consolidating on a common IP-based platform for the fourth generation (4G) of mobile telephony, LTE (Long Term Evolution), in which VoIP is no longer an option—it's a requirement.
According to Eric Ericsson, head of telephony evolution at telephony equipment vendor Ericsson, the mobile industry's Voice over LTE initiative will allow carriers to deliver better service than Skype and its ilk at a lower cost than can be managed today. It also is supposed to make it easier to add new features, such as cheaper roaming, video, and "presence," which routes the call to the device that's most convenient for the user at the moment.
To be sure, a complete switchover to VoIP or LTE won't happen overnight. Operators have invested too much in their legacy voice networks to kill them off in favor of what is still seen as an unproven technology. Though 4G services are being launched right now, they'll coexist with 3G and even 2G for much of the next decade.
But as communications adopt an all-IP architecture, it will get easier to overlay voice on top of other technologies. Digitized voice is finding its way into dozens of applications, including social networking, online gaming, videoconferencing, even advertising. Voice will be reduced to a commodity, like electricity or water. A good thing, too.
This article originally appeared in print as "Setting Phone Service Free."
About the Author
James Middleton, of London, has covered communications technology for a dozen years, most recently at Telecoms.com. In reporting "Voice Over IP" he finally got to interview the founding fathers of Internet telephony, who recounted the field's unexpected origins. Middleton studied English and drama at university but must have a bit of the engineer inside him: He says he loves learning how things work, whether by hand-coding a Web site or restoring vintage bicycles.
For all of IEEE Spectrum's Top 11 Technologies of the Decade, visit the special report.