Telecom carriers from around the world came to Silicon Valley recently to talk to innovators. The occasion was TC3 2010, the third annual Telecom Council Carrier Connection get-together, put on by the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley. The purpose of the event was to let carriers tell innovators in the valley the kind of innovation they're looking for, and make contact with entrepreneurs they can work with. The big question is how serious the carriers are about pursuing the opportunities that innovators present. And the key to answering the question is understanding how desperate the carriers are.
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Verizon Wireless was for a long time the most conservative U.S. carrier. It did everything it could to keep even mildly disruptive applications and services off of its network and handsets. In the last year, though, it has claimed to be changing, saying it planned to make its network as open as possible. In October it said it would introduce two handsets running the Google-developed Android operating system, and with Google Voice installed. It subsequently announced a deal with Google to jointly develop and sell products, including such Android-based devices. Now it appears set to announce a deal with Skype.
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When fring and iCall announced recently that they were introducing iPhone 3G VoIP calling apps, it seemed a turning point for mobile VoIP. The apps, which recent changes in the Apple SDK made possible, made it clear that there's no turning back: VoIP over cellular data connections will soon become commonplace. What was less obvious was that, at this point, 3G VoIP won't have major impact, at least in the U.S. That's because under existing major mobile pricing plans, it won't produce significant savings for most users.
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When AT&T responded late last year to the FCC's request for comment on the transition from circuit-switched to all-IP public telephone infrastructure, it seemed to mark a turning point in the history of telecommunications. The 30-page letter the telco filed on December 21 urged the total phaseout of POTS (traditional "plain old telephone service") and the PSTN (public switched telephone network) on which it runs. It also recommended that the agency set a firm date for the transition in order to ensure that it happen as quickly as possible. Thus the company whose name is virtually synonymous with traditional telephony seemed to cast a clear vote in favor of the all-VoIP future. In reality, though, it was just as much a vote against AT&T's traditional service obligations. It was also a shrewd attempt to bind the phone company's interests to the high-profile issue of universal broadband access.
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There were more advances than true innovations in the VoIP world in 2009. That's because some of the most important developments had more to do with commercial and political maneuvers than with technical creativity. Still, such maneuvers often helped spread the benefits of VoIP as much as did technical innovation. And collectively, the advances brought some already-evident trends into clearer focus. A key such trend is the increasing integration of voice with other applications and services. Another is the intensifying interest in HD voice. A third is the growing interconnection of VoIP services, in part in response to the possibilities that end-to-end HD voice offers. With such trends as background, here, in no particular order, are our top 25 VoIP advances of 2009.
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The most widely recognized obstacle to mobile VoIP running over cellular data networks is carriers' opposition. Mobile operators don't want to allow services that compete with their lucrative voice minutes businesses to run over their networks, because it means all they'll get paid for is transporting the bits carrying the voice, a far less lucrative business. A less-known obstacle to the service is call quality concerns. Regular voice calls can sound bad enough, but delivering them over a data network not designed with real-time services like voice in mind. A Global IP Solutions (GIPS) answer to the latter problem is now available for Android users.
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So it's now official: network neutrality is about Republicans versus Democrats. Evidence of the parallel was plentiful leading up to the FCC's recent notice of proposed rulemaking, when many public statements on the subject sounded like partisan rhetoric. But AT&T's September 25 letter to the FCC attacking Google provided the most convincing proof: it amounted to a character assault worthy of a presidential campaign. And a subsequent op-ed piece in the Washington Examiner made clear, if it wasn't already, which sides the high-tech combatants were on.
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The timing of the announcements by Verizon Wireless and AT&T was almost transparent. Both came just a couple of weeks after new FCC chairman Julius Genachowski's September 21 speech on network neutrality. In that speech, Genachowski stated, among other things, that neutrality rules should cover wireless communications. Even then, it was clear that mobile VoIP would be the most explosive issue in the network neutrality battle.
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More than eight years after signing up its first residential phone customer, Vonage is finally becoming a real VoIP company. Despite being the name most associated in the public mind with VoIP, Vonage actually has spent most of its time pretending to be a conventional phone company. It offered little that AT&T didn't, except a slightly lower price. Recently, however, it has belatedly begun adding other ways to use its service which take advantage of VoIP's unique capabilities. The latest additions are applications for iPhone and BlackBerry phones.
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SIP trunking services deliver voice calls from telecom providers to companies over IP data connections. Feeding their traffic directly into IP PBXes on the companies' premises, such services can bring considerable benefits. Sprint began offering SIP trunking to companies using Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 R2, an IP PBX software package that runs on Office servers, in February of this year. Now it's making the service generally available to business customers.
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