Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Insomnia Watch

Just a random musing at 5:30AM.

I've started using Google Talk as an alternative to AIM. While the basic instant messaging technology does not change much, Google Talk has a fairly impressive user-to-user voice calling system. I had a conversation with someone in Philadelphia and the transmission was near instantaneous. Which is more impressive when you realize that the microphone captures the sound, turns it over to GT for encryption, sends it through the internet to the receiving computer, decrypts the message and then plays it. And it works. The quality was superior to that of an analog phonecall.

I suppose a truer test of the technology would be over greater distances and calls abroad. A key feature that is not available, however, is GT-to-telephone service, which would necessarily cost Google more than a pure IP-to-IP call.

What's even more fun to speculate is a golden, future time when WiFi or similar wireless internet networks are made widespread. All telephone calls could be VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol- i.e., calls that exist purely as packets of data on the internet that flow between two internet users) and this greater interconnectivity will not only be cheaper to run, but offers superior transmission quality than the analog telephone system. Gone are antiquated telephone PBXs (although they have come a long way) and costly telephone service.

Unfortunately, the telecom industry rather than embrace the technology and work to develop it will most likely chose to fight readily available WiFi and are sure to fight VOIP.

Exhibit A is an article describing the telecom industry's fight to prevent Philadelphia from providing free WiFi throughout the city. Although I am a big fan of industry in general, this is fairly ridiculous. It's kind of sobering to think that politicians would attempt to deep-six a program that is clearly on the cutting edge of technology and would serve as a great test subject for this next step in communication technology.

Exhibit B
is an article detailing the FCC's ruling forcing VOIP carriers to provide 911 with the location of their users. This article details the sort of kludge solution that needs to be worked out for this new technology. At first blush it seems reasonable. A VOIP user suffering a stroke who is able to dial 911 but unable to speak should rescued just as a standard telephone victim would be saved. But cell phone carriers are not required to provide 911 with the location of a user. In fact, and this is rich, I attempted to report a crime to the Metro PD here in DC, but my phone was roaming on another carrier's network, whose cell tower is located outside of DC. Hence, instead of getting my local cops, I got the Arlington PD. Which probably wouldn't have worked out too well if I was in need of serious medical attention or needed the police to exercise its monopoly on legitimate force on my behalf.

Another problem that faces VOIP and even new instant messaging programs such as Google Talk is the problem of network effects. Basically, envision a telephone service that consists of you and your mother. The equipment backing the network only allows you to talk to your mother (her paradise I am sure). Now envision a network that allows you to talk to your whole family. Clearly you would prefer the network that allows a greater number of possible conversations. For this reason it was difficult for other firms to compete for local telephone service, and this is why it is difficult for upstart IM programs to gain a toehold.

However, I believe that VOIP and IM programs are different. The problem with network effects and the MaBell debacle was the problem of physical infrastructure. Physical line had to be laid by the telephone company to each house and from each house to a PBX and from each PBX to a series of "long lines," or super lines that connected the telephone exchanges. Here, the infrastructure exists and it's just a matter of time until someone perfects the VOIP technology and makes it readily accessible.

See what happens when I play around with my blog header? The inner geek emerges.