WebRTC Expert Feature

December 04, 2013

Can WebRTC Be a New Type of Wireless Service?

Having been in and around VoIP for nearly 20 years, I am beginning to wonder if the axioms have grown somewhat long in the tooth, such as “Voice is just another app,”“The price per minute of voice is approaching zero”, and “The only carrier service is access to the Internet.”

After 1996 and telecom reform, there was a period during which outside investors from construction (Level3), to Fashion Week (RSL Communications), were coming into the business. The VoIP Gold Rush was on, with fiber serving as the pan in the river and Corning delivering the prospector’s tool kit.  Ribbons of fiber were being trenched to all the major football cities and every other densely yellow spot on the map. 

Heady times, to be sure, though somewhat lost in all of the excitement was a huge disconnect regarding the last mile.  Across the country, rights of way were a lot easier to obtain than access to local phone poles and streetlights, and all of a sudden there were bankrupt companies on the outside looking in, companies that started off as Wall Street darlings were collapsing, and bold choices in equipment were totally abandoned. And at the most important end of it all, subscribers who chose to go with sole service models from competitive carriers found themselves without service and without alternatives, as in theory the incumbent was no longer in charge of their last mile.

All of this, as you can no doubt imagine, left a bitter pill for the investors to swallow, since the capital-intensive VoIP business was a write-off without much salvage value. But that was then, and this is now.

Now? Well, now there is a chance to use wireless as an alternative access method, which means that carriers can reduce the capital infrastructure, and in fact the economics are different as the build outs by all the major carriers have already been using shared infrastructure (towers) for quite some time.

So here is the question (and my apologies for taking so long to get to it): Can WebRTC be deployed as part of an alternative access service?

According a Telco2.0 report, carriers are going to lose between $92 billion and 170 billion in voice and messaging services between now and 2018, the expectation being that of voice is finally going to be the application we have long said it would be. That is not, though, in the cards considering the way VoLTE is playing out.

The VoLTE implementations we are seeing now are the proper strategy for incumbents.  The voice calls they now make are being modified to leverage an all-packet infrastructure, (and not to interconnect to any other OTT solutions), which is very logical for the carriers that are building it in a way that will add quality to packetized voice (better codecs) and remove the costs of network infrastructure.

Logically speaking, even if the WebRTC clan were to rally around H.264, it would not indicate that the phones will be any more OTT-friendly. Looking at a green field model, however, WebRTC and wireless have a few interesting possibilities to consider.  For example, a bundled WebRTC service to an alternate access model could be a great add-on for WiSPs and community network-based networks, particularly if WebRTC video makes the service something other than an equivalent to the PSTN.

While it may sound as if a new era of competition is possible, I need to remind everyone out there that many of the original VoIP players ended up competing as an alternative telco (which in my opinion, was the root of their demise). Thanks to iChat and Skype, though, people are becoming accustomed to being on a video call, and it just may be that John and Jane Telephone are ready for new visual services (and it sure would be nice to see more in the way of such services, especially considering the 2018 expiration date put on the PSTN).

Edited by Rachel Ramsey
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