The Basics of IP Voice Peering
by Leslie Ellis // February 26 2007
The word “peer” is a busy one in Internet lingo. There’s “peer to peer,” often abbreviated “P2P,” which usually describes file-sharing methods for broadband-connected computers. It’s a big topic, with lots of offshoots.
Then there’s “peering,” also known as “IP Peering,” and the subject of this week’s translation. (The “IP” stands for “Internet Protocol.”)
Right now, when people mention “peering,” they’re usually talking about broadband service providers who want to directly link their routers. That way, an email from me to you gets to you in the most direct way possible, even though we probably use different Internet service providers.
Peering for data, in fact, is the norm these days — but it’s just the beginning. IP peering is poised to go much further.
Peering for Voice Traffic
Take voice, for instance. If you’re a cable operator, you’re offering voice to round out the bundle, and to subtract market share from incumbent telcos. If you were to peer your IP networks for voice services, though, you could do all that, plus save a pile of money.
Here’s where the pile of money comes from. Right now, most cable operators are providing voice services over their IP plant, but only to a very specific handoff point — generally speaking, that juncture where the Internet ends and the public switched telephone network (PSTN) begins.
Because they haven’t yet formalized “peering” arrangements among themselves, to directly route VoIP calls between their footprints, cable voice providers currently all pay what are called “termination fees.”
A “termination fee” happens when, say, a VoIP call made by a Charter customer needs to end up at a house served by Qwest. At some point, that call needs to jump off of Charter’s IP plant, and onto Qwest’s network. Every time that happens, companies like MCI, Sprint, and other “call termination” providers hear a happy “ka-ching” sound.
Which is Cheaper?
Ultimately, peering is an exercise in economics, more so than technology. It’s a “which is cheaper” thing. It goes like this: Should you keep paying someone to terminate calls to “regular” (non-VoIP) phone numbers? Or should you buy the gear and do what it takes to peer? Which is cheaper?
Answer: If lots of traffic is traversing between “peered” networks, the case for peering can be made fairly easily. If traffic is minimal, maybe you wait.
VoIP, after all, is still fairly new. It serves millions of subscribers, yes. But from a traffic perspective, “regular” data services — web surfing, e-mail — still generate considerably more volume than do aggregate VoIP calls. Plus, most people are still calling numbers that aren’t necessarily other VoIP lines.
A tenet of IP peering: It works best when all participants are passing a like amount of similar traffic. Think of any metropolitan area with more than one cable operator offering VoIP service. Chances are high that people are calling across the (behind-the-scenes) geographic boundaries of the respective providers. As VoIP volume grows, peering is probably worth looking into.
The to-do-list for IP voice peering is (of course!) more complicated than traditional “data only” peering. Because voice calls happen in real time, and can’t afford quality hits associated with network delays, they require QoS — tech shorthand for “quality of service.”
Then there’s the fairly numbing topic that is “ENUM,” (pronounced “ee-num”) which stands for “Telephone Number Mapping.” ENUM is sort of the white pages for routers: It’s a group of protocols that work in the background to convert phone numbers to IP addresses, and visa versa.
CableLabs issued a request for information about the technologies needed for IP voice peering in late 2005; its PacketCable effort continues to work out the kinks, both in the lab, and in ongoing specification work. Translation: It’s in motion.
As the year unfolds, we’re likely to see voice peering trials amongst cable providers. Much of the intent will be to learn what it takes to do ENUM. More on that another time.
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.
Crossing Into Cross Platform
by Leslie Ellis // February 12 2007
It’s hard to look at a page or listen to an industry conversation these days without seeing or hearing the words “cross-platform,” which also masquerade as “multi-platform” and, sometimes, “bundle 2.0.”
If you’re in the business of sending video, information and phone calls, over wires, to an expanding hodgepodge of devices in people’s homes — which anyone reading this magazine assuredly is — then you’re probably spending a bigger portion of your strategic time pondering how to mix and match those services.
This week’s translation aims to point out some of the bumps in the inevitable road to cross-platform services.
Because video is the granddaddy of the business, and the holy grail of home entertainment, it probably makes sense to start the cross-platform discussion at the three types of screens found in people’s homes: Big, medium, and small.
The Three Screens
The big screen is that sleek, flat, high definition beauty, hanging on the wall. Early on, HD screens were mostly used for viewing DVDs. Then came linear TV channels (there’s 12 where I live) and a growing roster of HD on-demand shows.
Through the prism of cross-platform, HD screens are the focal point for bringing high-quality, protected video in from the Internet, or for showing a family’s home pictures and movies. Also on the idea list: Reading and deleting your email; hearing and deleting your voice mail.
The medium screen, generally speaking, is the one near the main PC. The cross-platform view: Bringing in linear, broadcast TV lineups, not unlike what’s already playing on the big screen. Or, building personalized playlists of viewable stuff, which get pushed over to the HDTV for you to pick from, the next time you’re watching that screen.
And there’s the small screen — the cell phone, media player, PDA. Cross-platform for the little screen means finding ways to attach it to the home network (wired or wireless), so that video shows can safely be loaded into it.
Some cross-platform issues tend to transcend all three screens: Keeping copyrighted material safe from piracy. Making sure the user interface is easy to use and reasonably common (marketing people say “branded”), across all navigable screens.
Plus, traditional cable subscriptions service a household, while cross-platform activities innately involve the individuals in the house — and their devices. (In tech lingo, that last one goes by “service and device provisioning.”) So that needs attention.
And there’s the people issue, also transcendent.
A decade or two ago, tech people generally clumped into three areas: Headend people, plant people, set-top people.
These days, and as it relates to cross-platform, the tech community is considerably more slivered. Headend, plant and set-top people still exist, in a very relevant way — but they’re joined by the digital video people, the broadband and Internet Protocol people, and the wireless people. And let us not forget the behind-the-scenes souls working on the mind-bending maw of software and back office integration.
Historically speaking, telcos build good specialists. Cable companies build good generalists. Cross-platform craves cross-silo people: Specialized-generalists, generalized-specialists.
Meanwhile, within each service silo, technology suppliers continue to advance their products. The perceptive among them see growth in cross-platform. Result: Within each silo, technology is flourishing — at a predictably Internet-ish rate.
Traditional video suppliers are working it from the switch and the set-top. Broadband and IP-side suppliers reference the relative speed of their world as the faster and superior way to co-mingle services. Wireless people hold up SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) as a way to solve cross-platform everything.
In every case, on every screen, it’s safe to say that technology is moving faster than business decisions can keep up.
The ultimate answer is still Darwin’s: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those most responsive to change.”
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.