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Bad Packets: VoIP walks across coals

Voice over Internet Protocol has so far failed to reach the dizzying technological heights promised by marketers.

Voice over IP is coming of age.

It may have flunked previous rites of initiation, but that's going to change, and fast. No longer a precocious juvenile, the golden boy of IP services has developed rugged, leathery feet and is expected to trot cheerfully across the fiery coals at any moment.

At least so the vendors would have you believe... each and every year. The reality, that VoIP has always been the Technology That Never Was, is hushed up by the marketers, and in its place we are shown, season after season, bland reruns of VoIP: The Same Generation.

What do I mean by that? I mean it's taking a long time to get to the exciting part of this technology story. The hefty selling point of VoIP was, and remains, the theory that when you turn voice into data packets and deliver them from the per-minute switched-circuit telecommunications networks into the promised land of IP, you and your business save enormous gobs of money.

But that's come to be perceived as trickier than initially believed, because the technology is tougher than it might at first appear.

If you control a vast IP network of your own design and implementation, and you want to leverage it to connect your branch offices, that's one thing; quality of service issues fall within your own purview. You can see to it that the requisite bandwidth is there, that everybody is using consistent protocols, that hardware is interoperable, and so forth.

But if, as is the case for the vast majority of businesses, you're talking about deploying VoIP using the public Internet as your primary point of departure, well, easier said than done. It's not for nothing that the Net is typically represented as a cloud on network diagrams.

Ten billion variables control what happens on it at any given moment, and trying to predict and control them for an area as timing-intensive as voice calls - where user expectations are really very high - is roughly equivalent to predicting and controlling the weather for your outdoor wedding. Best of luck to you.

Of course, the technology really is getting better. We've all heard the success stories starting to emerge. But it takes more than urban legends to transform a bad reputation; it takes marketing that's as superior as the product.

Consider the parallel case of broadband wireless. This is a class of networking technology which really delivers, yielding Gigabit Ethernet-class performance in combination with incredibly fast deployment times. Buy milk on Deployment Day One, and the sell-by date will still be days away when you're through.

Broadband wireless doesn't depend on an installed fiber or copper infrastructure, it handles almost any type of traffic with ease, and it doesn't cost that much. It's been through several generations now, and early issues with weather blockage are largely resolved.

But all the same, it's really gotten hammered in the last year. Teligent, for instance, a leading broadband wireless carrier, was once a darling on Wall Street, bankrolled by no less a VC firm than Microsoft and led by the indomitable Alex Mandl, formerly president and COO of little-known startup AT&T.

That didn't stop it from filing Chapter 11 in 2001 -- once the whole sector was perceived as a failure.

Even Bill Gates, with his notoriously spotty memory on all matters regarding Microsoft and its business practices, would probably remember that one. Sure, right now he's sitting in court, listening to questions fired at him by the states' attorneys and shaking his Magic Eight Ball head for the answers:

Lawyers: You always meant to leverage Windows to drive Netscape out of business, didn't you?

Gates: (shakes head) Signs are hazy. Outlook is unclear. Sources say maybe.

But on the subject of Teligent, I imagine it would sound like this:

Lawyers: How much did you invest in Teligent?

Gates: (disgusted) Oh, man, we barfed up more than half a billion. Can you believe it? Exact amounts and times of disbursement are as follows...

My point in all of this is simple: Like broadband wireless, VoIP has already taken a bit of a bad rap. It's been so many years now that we've seen the technology fail to deliver in a meaningful way that many of us wonder if it ever will. If it's going to get off the ground, it's going to have to overcome that stigma.

It's not just about the technology. It's also about market timing and perceived value. The maturity of the product will have to be paired with the degree to which the market is ready to buy it.

Bad Packets: Bye-bye to Metcalfe's Law

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