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Developments in Voice Over Broadband

Dr. John Gill
October 2004

The conventional telephone system sets up a direct connection between one subscriber and another. However the internet uses a process of sending packets of information, by arbitrary routes, which are then re-assembled by the receiver. This packet-switched system can be used for voice telephony if the transmission system has sufficient speed.

The more general availability of broadband for both business and domestic users has opened the market for voice telephony services over broadband. The driving force for this change is that calls, both national and international, are substantially cheaper for those who have access to a broadband connection.

There are also benefits from using the internet protocol. It permits businesses to integrate their telephone, fax, email and other applications such as unified messaging. In addition it can be used to support flexible working practices where staff are at various locations.

With the conventional telephone system special services, such as call back, rely on software within the network. This requires considerable investment for each new service in that new software has to be implemented and tested throughout the network. With voice over broadband, much of the intelligence is in the terminal rather than the network. The significance of this is that the user can select and configure their services; typically this will be done from the user's personal computer.

There are likely to be many new companies, some of which will be based abroad, offering voice over broadband services with strong competitive pressures to provide services for the lowest price. These companies are likely to be subject to minimal regulation.

There are some disadvantages with voice over broadband:

  1. Audio quality is likely to be lower than customers are used to on fixed line telephones. This could be significant for users with a hearing impairment.
  2. The reliability of obtaining a connection for a 999 call will be less than for the fixed line network. Also many systems may not operate in the event of a power failure. It is likely that businesses will rely on a mobile phone connection in such circumstances.
  3. Since internet addresses are not related to geographic location, there is no simple system for emergency services to trace the location of a caller.
  4. As with mobile telephony, there is unlikely to be directory services for domestic users. Companies will probably subscribe to a form of "yellow pages" service or rely on their website to provide their electronic address.
  5. Although internet-based systems can handle text relatively easily, there are likely to be problems connecting between internet and conventional fixed line systems. This will be significant for deaf users who rely on text communication, during the time that voice over broadband is running in parallel to fixed line telephony.

Voice over broadband is likely to be the dominant system within a decade so it is important that the needs of people with disabilities are considered and possibly protected by appropriate regulation or legislation.


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