It’s been all over the news these past few months: the United States is making the transition to nationally distributed VoIP. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made it its goal to ditch the plain old telephone system (POTS) of the past and step into the 21st century with a virtualized alternative. But how exactly will VoIP work as a replacement? What will this transition mean for government communications? Are there still issues with VoIP that need to be addressed before we do away with copper lines?
TMC recently had the chance to discuss these questions and more with Dr. Cahit Akin, CEO of Mushroom Networks, a San Diego, Calif.-based company dedicated to providing innovative networking solutions for small and medium sized businesses, as well as enterprises.
TMC: In January, the FCC began discussing a huge overhaul the communications network in the United States, by moving away from traditional copper lines and making the switch to VoIP services. What makes VoIP such a viable option?
Dr. Cahit Akin: Copper line-based phone networks are built on a design concept that relies on static and dedicated connectivity paths between nodes. This dedicated and static nature of the connectivity path has the advantage of always being available and not sharing resources with any other applications. However, such systems, also known as circuit-switched networks, are inherently inefficient since, when the application is idle (i.e. no phone call), the dedicated copper wire will be unused.
This under-utilization of resources has led to the germination of more modern network designs, named packet-switched networks, whereby the transmission of information is based on packets and therefore can traverse any alternative path between nodes and therefore paths can be utilized by other applications as well. This is how the Internet works. As long as the reliability and quality of service is managed properly on the IP (Internet Protocol) links, the packet switched networks triumph circuit-switched networks in terms of flexibility, redundancy and cost.
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TMC: It seems that VoIP is becoming a widely accepted means of communication, both socially and professionally. Businesses all over the world are ditching their traditional phone systems in favor of VoIP. Why is VoIP being widely adopted and accepted in the business world?
Akin: VoIP has been the solution of choice in the backbone phone networks by the carriers and other voice service providers for a long time now. VoIP slowly took over the voice communication infrastructure because of its advantages over circuit switched POTS. It was only a natural next step to extend that more modern and cost-effective technology to the last mile and that is what we are seeing today with the adoption of IP-PBX systems that take advantage of VoIP technology all the way starting from the last mile. Granted, there still remain a few bumps in the road that relate to the reliability and quality of VoIP that requires additional technological improvements; however, the VoIP adoption tide is unstoppable in enterprise adoption.
TMC: How can VoIP improve communications security? In what ways is VoIP security superior to that of traditional phone lines? What new security issues might arise from VoIP services, and how can those be addressed?
Akin: POTS systems, since they are analog, have well-known methods of being wiretapped. Simply put, since the audio is analog in parts of the path in a POTS system, snooping is easier. On the other hand, a VoIP-based system is open for manipulation of the IP datagrams for certain goals in hand, such as encryption. This lends itself to higher security measures when implemented. At the same time, the IP-based nature of VoIP makes the application vulnerable to cyber attacks that are common in IP networks. Take an IP-PBX as an example. IP-PBX, as opposed an analog PBX, is a target for cyber attacks since it is indeed an IP node in the larger Internet. Like with any IP technology, security needs to be proactively addressed in VoIP systems.
TMC: Government communications can range from the perfunctory and non-critical to highly sensitive, classified information. Regardless of what information is being shared over government lines, however, security is paramount. How will the move to VoIP services benefit government agencies, particularly in terms of security?
Akin: Since VoIP systems are IP-based network elements, they are vulnerable to cyber attacks similar to PCs, servers, or any other IP node in the larger Internet. Special security and encryption measures need to be taken to ensure the high level of security and protection that the government communications require. Systems that can go through code review and other related security tests will have an upper hand as they will be less vulnerable to security loop-holes. Open source systems, which lend themselves to easier code review, are an interesting option for providing solutions that can be more secure than other closed commercial systems. The special screening and testing processes will, however, have an associated higher CAPEX cost.
TMC: What do you believe needs to happen for VoIP to realistically replace outdated communication networks?
Akin: VoIP already is superior to POTS in almost all measures imaginable, except the reliability and voice quality. Needless to say, reliability and voice quality are arguably the two most important killer features of a communication solution. The quality and reliability gap has been rapidly becoming smaller; however, these two factors still remain a roadblock for full adoption of VoIP in the enterprise and SMBs. For close to 100 percent adoption of VoIP, the voice quality and reliability issues need to be ironed out completely by the industry with innovative solutions.
TMC: With so many businesses, institutions, and now governments and agencies considering VoIP, what do you think this means for the future of communications? Is VoIP the future?
Akin: VoIP is the future. As IP networks propagate everywhere in our lives, expect IP enabled nodes everywhere in our lives, the Internet of Things. Clearly the communication technology will also be an IP-based technology in this paradigm.
While the transition from copper lines to VoIP may be time-consuming, and the FCC is still working through the details as we speak, it seems clear that VoIP is no longer limited to making calls to friends on Skype. It’s becoming the new universal platform of communication.