The Internet Age is upon us, and so too are the innumerable benefits its technology brings.
Almost everything we use these days is connected to the internet in some way: from television to smart fridges, we have learned to leverage the scalability, customizability, and accessibility that comes from internet-based services.
Businesses use the internet for nearly everything these days too, with websites and e-mail being the first that come to mind. Other applications are less obvious but equally important: finances, data analysis, and marketing all rely heavily on the internet in ways that we often take for granted.
Telecommunications — that is, telephones, fax machines, and the like — is another area of a business that tends to be taken for granted. We have been blessed with readily available and reliable telecommunications services for decades, with all the required infrastructure (which is quite complex, believe it or not) being skillfully hidden from us as a result. Like electricity, the fact that the service simply exists everywhere without any physical evidence of the background mechanics makes it all too easy to lend little thought to the intricacies of the technology, and even less so to how it can be improved.
Indeed, we have been spoiled; the ubiquity of plain old telephone service (POTS, if you’re in a hurry) has made us complacent. So many of us, businesses included, rely on POTS without a second thought — and though with age comes refinement, the technology is old, and by its very nature as an analog system has some significant limitations.
So, with nearly everything else being internet-based these days — for the plethora of obvious advantages — you may be wondering why we haven’t done the same with telecommunications.
The truth is, we did.
25 years ago.
Since 1995, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has been the digital competitor to traditional analog phone systems. Let’s start by discussing the “original recipe” for telecommunications:
Plain Old Telephone Service
At its core, the technology behind POTS is extraordinarily simple: sound waves in the air move a magnet which creates electrical signals in a wire. The same process happens in reverse at the other end, where the electricity moves a magnet, pushing on the air to produce sound. It is hard to overstate just how basic the technology is — though the standard calls for two wires, it’s possible to get by with just one.
Each endpoint is given a pair of wires twisted together into a cable. Hundreds or even thousands of these cables are then packaged together where they carry signals to local exchanges; these exchanges are where the lines are connected to complete calls. The system used to be entirely analog, with electro-mechanical switching systems physically connecting and disconnecting to allow electricity to flow between endpoints. However, these days we see digital switching systems dominate, due to their higher efficiency and capacity.
While simplicity is the great strength of POTS, that same simplicity can serve as a great weakness in many cases: the analog nature of the technology restricts POTS to a one-cable, one-call solution. Without (relatively) complex translation equipment on either side of the cable, there is no way to mix signals without them overlapping. In cases where multiple endpoints are required, the user is left with two options: a large bundle of cable (called a trunk) with a pair of wires for each endpoint, or an in-house switching system known as a private branch exchange, or PBX. Neither solution is simple to install, nor are they cheap. Even with only one line, any features other than the very existence of the connection requires dedicated hardware — that’s why home phone systems used to include answering machines. POTS is simple two-way voice communication that just works; if you want anything more than that, you’re on your own.
The Digital Way
VoIP is a digital approach to telecommunications, leveraging the power of the internet to transfer data instead of relying on analog signals. Fundamentally, the very nature of modern internet connections makes them ideal for communications systems — not due to speed or bandwidth, but due to insulation.
Analog signals as used by POTS are like water in a pipe: a continuous stream without any differentiation between the components. There is no way to separate a particular “piece” of water (were such a thing to exist in the first place). One pipe feeds the same water to the same location, and though many individual endpoints can access the water, there is no way to get different water to different endpoints without installing more pipes.
Internet data transfer on the other hand is more like boxes on a conveyor belt. Each box — called a “packet” — contains a little chunk of information, part of which is a label that indicates where it is meant to go. This allows for easy differentiation and distribution of packets, and so one cable can easily carry unique signals to unique endpoints. It is precisely this packet-based approach that allows many devices to connect to a central router, with each being served its own data independently.
A Challenger Approaches
VoIP systems take advantage of the packet-ness of internet connections to solve the scalability problem of POTS, allowing virtually unlimited endpoints to be served by one connection. Additionally, since the signals are digital anyway, computers can be used for unlimited customization without expensive dedicated equipment. In general, if you can imagine some feature or special capability for a communications system, it can be done through VoIP with a few lines of code.
Hardware becomes much less of an expense as well, with many businesses opting out of the traditional desk phone deployment and instead relying on software installed on employee workstations. These “softphones” usually come with their own subscription fees, but some may find the extra desk space worth the expense. For those (like me) who prefer a physical phone, VoIP works just like logging in to an e-mail account: the user enters a name and password, and the device registers with the server. Unlike traditional phone lines, this allows end users to work from anywhere, provided they have access to a compatible desk phone or software-based calling solution (and, of course, an internet connection). The possibilities really are endless.
Ignoring all the other features, there is one overarching benefit that VoIP brings to the table:
It’s really cheap.
Welcome to the future!
In Essentials of Communication, Part 2 we will explore some of the valuable yet technologically simple features a business can leverage with a VoIP system.
Author bio: Benjamin Cook is the co-owner of Three Layer Solutions, a Fredericton-based business development company. He is the resident specialist in telecommunications and IT services. Outside of running the business, he is a student at UNB working toward his Master of Mathematics.