opinion If there is one thing which has always surprised me about the National Broadband Network project, it is the dogged insistence of the network’s designers on building a legacy voice telephony port into what is supposed to be next-generation infrastructure.
This week Australia got its first look at what fixed-line telephony might look like when the National Broadband Network is rolled out, courtesy of Internode’s accreditation as the first ISP to use what NBN Co describes as UNI-V services — a technical term for the voice telephony port on the back of its network termination devices located in people’s homes, and the accompanying network service.
And so far, the service looks fantastic.
Internode customer Raaj Menon (you may remember Raaj moved house in Adelaide to become one of the first NBN customers nation-wide) gave a glowing review of the UNI-V service on his blog, where he has been progressively chronicling his experiences with the NBN.
“Setup was so easy,” Menon wrote. “All I did was unplug my PSTN connection cable from the wall port and plugged it straight into the UNI-V port as both of those ports have RJ12 connectors. That was it. I was up and running. Couldn’t have been easier.”
Sounds great! But wait, it gets better. Menon (also chief executive of PCRange, which distributes the Fritz!Box range of broadband routers, among other things), noted that he placed a few calls and received calls using the UNI-V service, and the clarity on the line was “superb”. “Amazing sound quality and it sounds like stereo,” he said, adding he hooked up the Fritz!Box’s wireless phone to check out how its included high-definition voice codecs would perform.
“All I can say is when the NBN trial is over and it goes commercial which should be next month, I am going to disable and cancel my PSTN services,” the executive wrote. “It served me well for years and years and now it is time to ditch this old technology and move to the new age. It will be good riddance to the old creaky PSTN. I am looking forward to using the UNI-V port from here on out. I have no hesitation in giving this the biggest thumbs up!!”
As I read Menon’s blog post, and Internode’s simultaneous press release on its UNI-V support, I couldn’t help but feel excited about the new technology. After all, I’m currently using a traditional fixed-line PSTN service as my main telephone line, due to the poor performance I’ve experienced in the past from voice over IP options such as iiNet’s Netphone service and Skype. It will be great to have crystal clear calling quality in my office telephone over the NBN.
However, then a pernicious little bird started whispering in my mind.
That whisper reminded me of the fact that voice telephony in the world of ubiquitous high-speed bandwidth which the NBN promises will be nothing more than just another network-conscious application running on top of the underlying TCP/IP stack which allows the NBN and the broader internet to function.
The whisper reminded me of the hundreds of times I have sat in media briefings held by companies like Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and even Skype, where executives have laid out a vision of unified communications where your voice telephony line follows you around as an application, allowing you to receive calls to the same number from your mobile, desk phone, house phone, computer, laptop or even tablet.
The whisper reminded me that we only have fixed-line telephony ports in Australian premises today because Telstra’s copper network was only initially built to support voice calls — with ADSL broadband being tacked on afterwards, while the NBN is being built purely to support next-generation broadband.
Menon and Internode’s enthusiasm for NBN Co’s UNI-V port notwithstanding, there is simply no reason to assume that in ten year’s time, when the NBN rollout is complete (assuming the policy isn’t cancelled wholesale by Tony Abbott and his band of NBN wreckers), that voice telephony will look anything like it does today.
It seems clear that the incredibly swift advancement in smartphone and wireless technology we are witnessing at the moment will lead to a future in the 2020’s that will see every individual maintain a series of unique identifiers that will allow them to be contacted by telephone through the platform of their choice, rather than being tied to primarily using the sort of fixed-line telephony solution that NBN Co’s UNI-V service represents.
I’m envisaging a world where Australians will easily be able to receive calls to their mobile phone number on whatever device they choose — smartphone, tablet, desk phone, PC, laptop or even television — with extremely granular options regarding whether those calls come through as a video call, pure audio, a combination with instant messaging, or whatever.
Hell, many small business owners already do this, with the functionality offered by Skype. It’s a regular occurrence for me to be chatting with a colleague through instant messaging or Twitter, and then decide we need to conduct a voice call on Skype — or even start a desktop video sharing session through a platform like Citrix GoToMeeting, like I did yesterday when sharing banking details with my accountant. The same is increasingly true of the corporate world, where organisations like the Commonwealth Bank and Jetstar have already deployed similar functionality through Microsoft’s Lync platform.
With the cost of mobile calls decreasing rapidly, services like Google Voice disintermediating carriers from their end customers and unified communications becoming ubiquitous in homes and businesses, it seems clear that the future of telephony in Australia — and in every other first-world country located around the globe — does not reside in receiving calls to a single fixed-line connection located in your home.
Now, there is no doubt that the smart cookies at NBN Co know all this.
It seems clear that the inclusion of the UNI-V port on the company’s network termination unit is designed to ensure as painless a transfer to the NBN infrastructure as possible. By implementing a voice port on its NTUs, NBN Co is clearly aiming, among other outcomes, to avoid the politically disastrous situation of hundreds of thousands of Australians being unable to place basic phone calls — a service which has been guaranteed for decades. And, despite my criticisms, I’m not saying NBN Co has made the wrong choice in doing so.
However, from a long-term technical perspective, the UNI-V solution still feels out of place to me. Consider this statement by Internode product manager Jim Kellett on Monday this week:
“We already have many customers enjoying our Voice over IP services across the National Broadband Network. Delivering an analogue-style phone service is the latest step along the NBN path for Internode, and means that customers will have even more choice.”
That’s right. Kellett notes that even without the UNI-V port being functional, many of Internode’s customers were already using the ISP’s Nodephone VoIP service over the NBN. And yet he praises the ability of the NBN to support “an analogue-style phone service”. Back to the future, indeed.
And this statement by Menon:
“One advantage of the UNI-V port is that when there is a power failure, there is a battery backup that will keep my voice services alive for up to 4 hrs. I can’t remember when I last had a power failure for more than an hour. So 4 hours should be ample enough. And if it goes beyond that, there is always a mobile phone. Who doesn’t have one these days?”
Precisely. Who doesn’t have a mobile phone, already? And one would think, in the event of a power failure, that most Australians would turn first to their mobile phone for emergency calls anyway, rather than their fixed-line telephone.
In so many ways, the NBN infrastructure being rolled out around Australia represents a huge advancement in Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure. And yet, in a few ways — such as the inclusion of the legacy UNI-V port on its network termination units — NBN Co remains trapped by the paradigms of the past … and is reimplementing artificial constructs which will very likely be minimally used in the future.