The late 1990s might one day be remembered as the dawn of Internet telephony, a time of explosive growth in the number of products and technologies for routing phone calls over the Internet.
What once was a CB-radio-like toy for nerds has blossomed into a way of doing business for telephone stalwarts such as AT&T, the impetus for a slew of hotshot start-up companies, and a rich new color in the consumer's palette of communication choices.
It is cheaper to route phone calls over the Internet rather than the public-switched telephone network because the Net can usually be accessed with a toll-free local call.
But beyond the cheaper hookups, the Net's Internet Protocol also provides a standard for more intelligent phones as well as less expensive telecom services and switching devices for internal communication within corporations.
Bolstered by special gateway hardware that provides a bridge to the PSTN, and sophisticated gatekeeper software designed to keep gateways and their associated "clients" in logical order, IP telephony has been invading the world's networks like a rapidly spreading oil spill.
Soon it could lead to a world in which nearly every PC and phone has a unique IP address that links it to high-speed networks carrying color videoconferences and digitized audio, according to industry analysts and vendors.
Starting with the Basics
Most current PCs come equipped with the basic sound circuitry and Internet software they need to "talk" with the new IP voice networks, although Microsoft, Intel, and other companies continually bring out new features in Windows and PC chips that are designed to improve sound and video processing.
But today's Internet telephony suffers from what the industry calls "quality of service" problems: clipped speech, a hollow, drum-like tone, and even dropped calls, due in part to the way the Net slices, routes, and prioritizes packets of voice data.
Companies such as Level Three and Qwest are building dedicated networks that eliminate most of these problems, according to Chandresh Ruparel of gateway maker Dialogic.
Cable Drives Phone
The main technology drivers of Web telephony may end up being massive shifts in the types of networks used to transport IP traffic, most notably to the high-speed "broadband" Internet channels offered by cable TV companies.
Broadband is always on, so there's less opportunity to drop calls during switching, and the technology for setting up calls can be simpler, cheaper, and more reliable. "Broadband is going to be a key enabling technology for IP telephony," predicts David Sokolic, a marketing director for Vocaltec, a Web phone pioneer and vendor of gateway and gatekeeper technology.