Monday, May 30, 2011

Wireless and VoIP

Wireless and VoIP

Wireless and VoIP: The Digital Opportunity

Wireless- no longer are wired lines the default position for telecom distribution. Rather, for larger areas there’s the pre-WiMAX or WiMAX. For smaller areas there’s WiFi and even WiFi Mesh. We now have the technology to cover rural areas at a price-point where low-income households living in low-density rural communities can now have connectivity for the first time through wireless technologies.

VoIP- simply put, voice is now an Internet application much like e-mail, text chat, or serving up web pages. It is now uncoupled from the expensive circuit switched PSTN infrastructure which has monopolized voice switching for over 100 years. It can now be provided over lower cost IP networks, is peer-to-peer, and with switching at an extremely low cost, even available via Open Source software. Phones can be analog phones with an ATA, or the newer generation of VoIP and even WiFi VoIP phones. Interconnection to the PSTN and mobile operators is through low cost Internet-PSTN gateway/router. All these technologies are already off-the-shelf and can be put into place with relative ease.

The bottom line is that an ISP with a VoIP license (if one is even needed), can become a non-facilities-based telecom carrier. From a technical perspective, small micro telcos are now a very real possibility. This Wireless and VoIP-based technology revolution provides a digital opportunity that is profound enough to virtually eliminate the current digital divide.

However, with this revolution in the digital sphere there is also the need to revolutionize our current thinking with respect to public policy. This will be harder to accomplish. With this technology revolution the dynamics of public policy shifts from trying to answer the question, "what can governments do to promote connectivity?" to a more profound question, "how can the government get out of the way and let this technology revolution run its full course?"

While progress is being made on this front, it is simply not enough. We need an approach that is as revolutionary as the technology. Here we need numbers. Rarely does a country issue more than a handful of telecom licenses. What’s needed is not a handful of telco operators, but hundreds, perhaps thousands. This can be accomplished via franchising of the current licensed operators, or the introduction of a new approach whereby if those currently holding the licenses don’t serve the community, the communities can apply to put in their own system. This is not far fetched. It was the model that was used in the U.S. in the early 1900s and provided a tremendous growth rate in teledensity in rural areas. Today, with these new technologies, the promise is greater than ever before.

Rural Deployment of Wireless and VoIP: A Compelling Economic Opportunity

We are now entering an era where we can cost- effectively deploy wireless and VoIP to close the urban-rural communications gap. While asynchronous solutions still have their role, as do computer-oriented telecenters, there is growing evidence that the greatest demand is for voice. We can now meet this demand.

The infrastructure costs for these small community systems is literally pennies on the dollar comparing costs with those from only a few years ago. These deployments do not require significant capital investment, are environmentally green and have very low operating costs.

Two primary obstacles remain before these technologies can be broadly adopted. Those obstacles are:
  1. the hesitancy of existing telecommunication carriers;
  2. restrictive government policies.
Unfortunately, both are based on a faulty perceptions. At the core of this misperception is the view that wireless and VoIP are a "bypass" to normal phone services and thus creating an economic drain. However, for rural areas there is nothing to bypass. Wireless and VoIP solutions are not substitute solutions, but simply appropriate technology and both parties have much to gain by their adoption.

For the Telco Carriers - Wireless and VoIP technology creates a unique opportunity to expand the number of customers served by serving the rural customers. More customers equates to more calls which equates to more revenue, all with minimal investment and operating costs.

If the carrier isn’t interested in the rural expansion as a primary business objective, then this opportunity can be exploited through local franchising arrangements. The carrier need only establish a community-based wireless-VoIP network and include a franchise model.

Ideally, a carrier would establish a flat-monthly rate for unlimited local calling (since the operating costs are not use-sensitive). This "pushes" the maximum number of phones into a community, which requires more access points, which occasions greater inter- and intra-community coverage. Result? Revenue.

For the Governments - for governments the advantages are numerous.

The government benefits in several ways from expanding telecom into rural areas via universal service/access funds (USF/UAF). First, it encourages small-medium investments in areas where it is traditionally difficult to promote any form of investment. Second, it reorients the USF/UAF approach more towards small community-focused loans and away from on-going, never-ending subsidies. Third, it lowers costs and captures more revenue from the consumers.

Rural economic development also serves government interests by building tax base. First, whether a stand-alone business or a franchise from an existing carrier is created, an entrepreneurial business is placed into the rural community. Second, it’s been proven repeatedly that telecom services by themselves have a positive impact on local economic activity. Third, this IP-based service enhances the delivery/access to government services via the Internet including delivering improved health and education services at a lower cost. Fourth, by delivering a richer economic environment and enhanced services this has the potential for slowing the rural-to-urban migration.

Telecom policy and legislation may have to be adjusted to allow rural community-centric systems to be put into place. But here again, this needed adjustment is not a threat to any current carrier. Wireless,VoIP networks will still drive traffic to, and draw traffic from, the local carriers which will create revenue at minimal cost to the carriers.

These newer wireless and VoIP technologies are not simply exciting from a technology perspective. They are even more exciting in that they allow us to solve a the long-standing problem of how to connect the unconnected. The rural user wins. The carrier wins. Such opportunities are both happy and rare.

Satellite, Wireless, and VoIP: An Emerging Rural Communications Architecture

One of the current dynamics taking place within the international development community is the leveraging of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for expanding communication access into rural areas. Perhaps the most promising of these newer technologies is the combination of wireless and VoIP.

This short paper captures one of the promising aspects coming out of USAID’s Last Mile Initiative (LMI), specifically as it relates to the deployment of these two technologies in Mongolia and Vietnam. It focuses specifically on the architecture and components associated with delivering rural voice communications through a combination of satellite, wireless, and VoIP technologies.

The diagram to the right illustrates the basic architecture emerging from these recent on-the-ground experiences. Within this general architecture there are several components, and for each of these, there are options. The following provides a basic definition of these components along with options and considerations.

Satellite - depending on the specific location of deployment, there are a range of satellite options. The most promising satellite developments is the newer generation of IP-based satellite services such as BGAN, IPSTAR, and iDirect. BGAN is well-suited for rapid deployments but its use-based pricing makes it prohibitive for extended use. A service with an in-country hub is preferred to one where the hub is located outside of the country, though this approach is also viable in most situations.

Satellite Terminal - this is largely dictated by the satellite service used in the deployment. BGAN units are small, approximately 1 foot square whereas Ku band terminals are typically 3+ feet and C band terminals 6-8 feet.

VoIP Switching - a key component of the architecture is the switching. The recent revolutions here are: 1) switching is now an Internet application, and 2) it is software based. The combination substantially lowers the cost with Open Source solutions being available.

Edge Switch - one key consideration of a rural wireless VoIP approach is to keep local traffic local, thus lowering satellite traffic and costs. Being that VoIP calls use a peer-to-peer approach, an edge switch serves this purpose. It also serves to stabilize the network. Should the satellite link go down for any reason, the edge switch allows local calls to be made.

Wireless Network - the wireless network can be WiMAX, WiFi, or a combination of both. For small communities a single array of WiFi directional antennas can provide coverage within a 4-5 km diameter. Solar powered WiFi Meshes can extend this reach even further. A WiMAX deployment can also serve as the longer-distance distribution method with a WiFi solution used for establishing multiple local hotspots or clouds.

Phone Instruments - here the options are a standard analog phone attached to an ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter), a wired IP phone, or a WiFi phone. The first two require a separate antenna. With the distribution being via WiFi clouds, the WiFi phone provides the greatest flexibility of use to community citizens.

PSTN Gateway - the final component is an Internet-PSTN gateway. This is basically a router with a series of FXO-FSX cards or a specialized device (Mediatrix being one). This allows full connectivity to/from the PSTNs and local mobile operators, though this naturally requires an interconnection agreement.

Wireless and VoIP: Associated Legal and Regulatory Issues Needing Attention

Perhaps the most accurate definition of the dynamics associated with telecommunications is the continual interaction and rebalancing of three key elements; changing technology, the resultant cost-pricing implications of these changes, and the legal and regulatory environment needed to accommodate these changes.

transparent legal and regulatory environment needed to ensure at least a modicum of predictability and orderliness within the sector.

The core shift is VoIP. Simply put, voice services have been unbundled from the PSTN; the network that has been the backbone of voice services since the late 1800s. Voice is now an Internet application along with e-mail, chat, and dishing up web pages. The ultimate of unbundling. Further, these services can be provided for pennies compared to hundreds of dollars.

The shifts brought about by wireless technologies are also profound. These wireless technologies provide distribution of voice, data, and video over a convergent network. Again the costs are relatively low.

To cap off this dynamic, low-cost Internet-PSTN Gateways allow for the seamless interconnection of calls to/from these new networks to the legacy networks that current dominate our telecommunications environment.

With these technology changes a non-licensed ISP with VoIP software can become a viable voice-service provider, capable of competing against the big telcos with a minimal amount of investment.

But for the regulator, even establishing what level of rebalancing to strive for is not an easy equation. And this is just a staring point. A range of other factors need near-immediate attention include the following.

How Open of a Telecom Environment - assuming a very low cost for market entry, should entry be regulated and if so, with what restrictions? If the goal of regulation is to maximize public good, and the new wireless-VoIP entrants can slash pricing to near-free, isn’t that the ultimate of public good?

How Orderly of a Telecom Environment - existing facilities-based telcos have millions of dollars invested and thousands of employees. To let these firms collapse with the entry of the new wireless-VoIP entrants would not be orderly. Where is that balance?

Internet versus Telecom Regulatory Oversight - traditionally the voice telecom has been regulated and the data-Internet has not been regulated. With voice now an Internet application, is it to be regulated? If so, how much? What about inequity treatment?

Establishing Tariffs - the mantra of tariffs has been cost-base pricing. With the new wireless-VoIP entrants costs can be near zero. How is this balanced with those existing firms with millions of investments needing recovery?

How to Handle Interconnection - cost-based pricing for call termination is another issue needing attention where there is such a range of costs.

Pricing of Backbone Infrastructure - many have made the argument that even now the Internet users are getting a near-free ride on the major telcos’ infrastructure investment. Does the current arrangement need changing?

Frequency Allocation, Management and Licensing - Mobile operators have paid millions for their use of commercial spectrum. Yet now the potential exists for commercial use of what has been public (unlicensed) spectrum. Are changes needed here?

Unfortunately the list of those issues needing attention with the introduction of wireless/VoIP-based voice services goes on and on. The needed policy and regulatory reforms required must ultimately be as profound as the technology changes that are forcing the issue. This is where the very real and difficult challenges will be played out over the next several years. It’s none to early to start focusing attention on this now.

Internet and VoIP: Going Beyond Voice to Information

During this last decade perhaps the most significant dynamic in the telecommunications arena taking place in developing countries has been the mobile phone. In a word, the growth rate has been staggering. In a growing number of countries the number of mobile phones significantly exceeds the number of fixed lines. This is the situation on a world-wide basis with the number of mobile phones exceeding the number of fixed lines since 2001. Clearly the lower cost and rapid deployment of wireless communications technologies are having a significant impact in closing the "digital divide".

The promise of broadband wireless combined with Voice over IP (VoIP) holds even more promise for accelerating this trend. This is possible by substantially lowering the costs of infrastructure and delivery, and by reaching out even further into the rural areas. An expanding number of trials, demonstrations, and even production systems are yielding ample evidence that this new technology set is having revolutionary impact not only in developed countries, but potentially an even greater impact in developing economies. And Part of this emerging impact lies in the fact that these wireless networks, be they pre-WiMAX, WiMAX, or WiFi, are IP-based. Thus, they establish a convergent network that holds potential for going well beyond delivering voice services.

Unfortunately in a critical paradox, while the gap for telephone access is narrowing, the information gap is not. In many situations it is worsening. Growth in Internet access in developed economies continues to outpace that of developing countries. Globally it is substantially wider today than ten years ago. And this trend will likely continue for the foreseeable future, even with the introduction of IP-based wireless and VoIP, especially for those living in the more rural areas.

This is not hard to envision as the overwhelmingly dominant terminal device in the hands of most citizens living in the developing world is, and will be, a phone. Not a personal computer. Whether it is a phone connected to a fixed line, a mobile phone or a wireless VoIP phone, costs alone will dictate for years to come that the phone will continue to be the dominant end-user communications device, even if these phones become smarter and computers become less expensive.

Yet herein lies the seed for closing the information gap. First, there is the need to recognize that, simply put, the telephone rules. Second, we must realize that while for centuries these instruments have been used simply for voice, the potential use goes well beyond mere conversations, even with "dumb" phones. Third, VoIP is now an application; an Internet application. Like other applications, the newer VoIP applications are built on a development platform; a tool set that can be used to develop other types of applications beyond VoIP. This includes information applications that can be delivered through a phone as well as a PC. With PSTN gateways, these information applications can be delivered through normal fixed lines, mobile phones, as well as VoIP phones.

For those of us living in an information-rich economy where we demand our information be delivered in rich multimedia forms, this may not look like the future. But for the majority of those living on this planet, this is the next, and perhaps the richest opportunity for closing the information gap. This next revolution is cued up in the wings. And with the explosion of phones of recent years, now is the time to get this revolution underway.

Broadband Internet Access - the core building block for low-cost interconnection is the Internet. Broadband Internet.

VoIP Switching - the newest component making this possible is the low-cost, software-based VoIP switching. Here the key is to set up an in-house VoIP server, or acquire a VoIP service provider for a flat monthly fee. The savings will pay for this modest cost and/or investment many, many times over. Payback with a single month is not uncommon.

Secure Communications - no longer does one need secured VPNs to have fully-encrypted calls. Because VoIP is a data service, adding encryption is relatively straight forward.

VoIP Phones - for a single connection the key component is a Voice over IP (VoIP phone. There are three options; 1) use a standard phone and add an analog telephone adaptor (ATA) to the Internet connection, 2) use a special VoIP phone plugged into the Internet, or 3) place a WiFi access point (WAP) off of the Internet connected to a VoWiFi phone.

PBX-Internet Connection - for connecting an office environment the solution is basically to allocate a small number of phone extensions to the Internet and connect via a multi-port ATA/Gateway. There’s no need to swap out the existing PBX. Do this at each international location and all offices can reach any other office via VoIP.

Internet-to-PSTN Gateway - here the component is a simple Internet-PSTN gateway. These are basically routers which have been programmed to interconnect to the VoIP switch such that static IP addresses are linked with phone numbers. For organizations connecting their PBXs to the Internet, this PBX-Internet connection doubles as the PSTN Gateway.

Wireless and VoIP: Supporting Emergency Response

The unfortunate reality of our world today is that both natural and man-made disasters continue to plague our planet. Be it earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, famine, or conflicts; global disasters are both a fact and a challenge.

Most frequently the rapid response starts with a small on-the-ground assessment team to determine the immediate needs and priorities. And from this initial assessment the focus shifts immediately to logistics…getting the proper emergency-oriented response mobilized as quickly as possible. The use of information and communication technology (ICT) is playing an increasingly important role in the rapid response effort. Specifically, communications.

This communications requirement has benefited recently from an expanding number of satellites and the introduction of hand-held and small-footprint satellite phones.

But just within the last few years there has emerged a combination of telecom-related solution sets that hold even greater promise to support these rapid response situations. These solutions can be pre-packed into a suitcase or even carry-on, and be made available for immediate deployment. Further, if done properly, this initial deployment can serve as the base for further expansion through wireless technologies. This expansion can be added as the need unfolds and even made permanent if needed. While solutions can vary, the following provide an example:

Satellite-based Internet - the core component to delivering rapid delivery of communications for emergency situations is a range of existing satellites. These provide global coverage and are already in place. The key shift in recent years are those providing native IP-based services.

Small Satellite Terminals - In addition to the existing hand-held and small footprint phones, more recently there has been the introduction of small broadband IP-based terminals. These include the RBGAN units introduced by Inmarsat several years back, but more recently their higher-capacity BGAN terminals. The keys here are the portability, the increased capacity that is sufficient to support a terrestrial wireless network with multiple devices, and that these units can be solar powered.

VoIP Switching and Phones - the more recent introduction of software-based VoIP solutions, allows the switching to be in place well before any emergency and for one switch to serve multiple emergencies around the planet. The newer WiFi-based VoIP phones with more efficient CODECs lower the cost substantially. These can be encrypted where security is a requirement.

Wireless Networks - with the satellite services delivery connectivity to any location on the planet, extending the reach via a terrestrial solar-powered wireless service is another key component. This can be accomplished either via WiFi Meshes and/or WiMAX.

Local PSTN Gateways - the final component is the Internet-PSTN gateway. For calling other VoIP users, this isn’t needed. But to meet the needs of calling to, and receiving calls from those on the PSTN, a PSTN gateway is required. Again, gateways can be put in place well before the crisis and be placed in multiple countries and cities around the globe.

The above components are not so much new as they are a tailored combination of existing proven technologies. Here the focus is on a solution set that is; a) off the shelf, b) can be pre-packaged, c) is small, d) can be rapidly deployed, e) has low power requirements so it can be solar/battery powered, f) provides for local, domestic long distance, as well as international connectivity, and g) can support voice as well as broadband data over a single network. Further, a single solution set can be deployed and used by a number of first responder organizations. This lower costs and significantly improves the on-the-ground communications and coordination between the first-wave of responding organizations.

Wireless Broadband Technologies: Summary of Rural Alternatives

In recent years the role of wireless technologies for expanding the reach of telecommunication into the more rural areas of developed and developing countries alike, has virtually exploded. The most recent dynamic has been through the use of mobile technologies, which have narrowed the developed-developing country voice communalizations gap. Clearly wireless has become the solution of choice.

While significant progress has been made on the voice-side through mobile systems, there remains a gap with regards to information. Here the voice-based systems have limitations on handling broadband data, one of the basic components for narrowing the information gap.

15 June 2006
Darrell E. Owen