New technologies can always count on a cadre of early adopters, the enthusiasts who hop on the technological bandwagon simply because they are enthralled by new and exciting products. Early adopters made pure-play voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers an initial success. But now the marketplace is diversifying with new players, new technologies and new combinations of functionality that are attracting mainstream consumers beyond the technology zealots. The new dynamics at work in the marketplace are having a profound effect on the architectures deployed in residential VoIP systems.
To date, most VoIP services were positioned in the marketplace as direct replacements for traditional voice service over the public switched telephone network (PSTN). In other words, VoIP service was pitched by providers as just another voice service with better rates.
Now, however, the pitch is changing. Incumbent service providers and networking operators are entering the VoIP market and bundling VoIP with additional services. For example, most, if not all, of the big cable multi-system operators (MSOs) are offering VoIP bundled with their television and broadband internet services. In fact, most providers and network operators now offer triple-play and quadruple-play bundles featuring voice, data, video and wireless communications.
Providers are also differentiating themselves with new value-added VoIP features. Contact management, streaming music, online voicemail access, high-definition (HD) voice and other advanced functionalities are becoming more and more attractive to providers because they open up new revenue streams. HD voice, for example, which is possible when the communication channel is digital from end to end, allows service providers to offer higher audio quality than traditional PSTN operators and some of the pure-play VoIP providers.
New IP-centric companies are also are being drawn into the IP services marketplace, of which VoIP is a part. This is because the last thing these providers want is for their product offerings to be likened to plain-old-telephone service (POTS). As a result, companies are differentiating themselves with creative new form factors for end-point IP phones and residential IP gateway systems.
Make room for video et al.
Increasingly, residential gateways, set-top gateways and other platforms that handle VoIP also process video. IP bandwidth to the gateway has been increased dramatically to accommodate IPTV, video-on-demand, video streaming applications, video conferencing and other innovative video applications. To make these services a reality, IP gateway systems must be designed to eliminate any internal bottlenecks that could introduce latency into real-time video and voice signals.
A particularly important emerging application for IP gateways is video surveillance. Currently video surveillance is completely separate from a home's TV, voice or data applications, but in the future all of these services will merge into the same gateway. This opens up exciting possibilities, such as the ability to keep tabs on one's house from anywhere in the world. More sophisticated applications such as intruder detection and tracking algorithms will also be possible by utilizing the increasing real-time processing capabilities of the home's IP gateway.
Aside from video, cellular and wide-area wireless communication technologies will also have a large impact on architectures and form factors deployed in residential IP systems. Leading the way are fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) applications that are beginning to emerge, offering greater convenience and cost-efficiency to consumers. For example, dual-mode phones are coming to market that automatically and seamlessly switch between a homeowner's Wi-Fi wireless local area network (WLAN) and the provider's cellular network. When connected to the WiFi network, the phone makes use of the VoIP calling capabilities in the home's VoIP gateway system to avoid cellular charges. In another application, the cell phone could function as another extension to the home's residential phone number, increasing the flexibility and access to the home's phone system.
One issue that arises in these applications is the effect of transcoding for the PSTN phones in the home. To minimize transcoding effects, VoIP gateways will add support for cellular codecs such as GSM and EVRC. It will also be possible to terminate a wireless call into a residential gateway such that same number can be used via a "home" phone and a cell phone—further blurring the lines between phone numbers and associated devices.
Of course, ease-of-use and simplicity are always critical in bringing new technology to mass-market consumer segments. In an effort to remove much of the fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding VoIP, carriers are trying to make the transition to VoIP virtually transparent, and as simple as changing from one PSTN provider to another. One way service providers strive to demystify the entire process is by integrating VoIP into a network interface device (NID) mounted on an internal or external wall of the home that seamlessly connects to the home's existing wiring. In this way, the migration from analog POTS service to high-speed broadband and IP-based services can be smooth and painless.