Voice Is Dead or Long Live Voice?

[qi:gigaom_icon_voip] I first started seriously writing about voice delivered over the Internet almost 10 years ago. I’ve written about the meteoric rise and ignominious fall of Vonage, the fabulous sale of Skype, and the deaths of countless wannabe VoIP service providers. Despite the story lines, there was one constant in every conversation I had with wildly optimistic VoIP entrepreneurs: Voice will eventually be free.

The voice bits will ride the IP network much like data streams created by Internet applications such as the browser and email. Of course, free is a relative term, but we do seem to have come to a point where voice is nothing but yet another application on the Internet. I think we are getting closer to that vision of the future, thanks to some developments last week:

1. Verizon (s vz) teamed up with Google (s goog) and will offer Android OS-powered phones. It will also allow for normal functioning of Google Voice over its networks. Eventually, Google Voice will work over its 3G data channels. (Related report from GigaOM Pro, subcription required: AT&T, Verizon Grudgingly Move Toward Openness)

2. AT&T (s t) said it will allow Internet voice services such as Skype to run over its 3G networks, even though it will significantly impact its long-distance revenue.

Both those moves showed that even the descendants of Ma Bell are ready to face the facts: Voice is dead (old-fashioned voice, anyway). Verizon made its decision by starting to sell off its landlines. The company still has over 17 million subscribers of its old-fashioned voice service, but it is a fast-declining base.

Old voice got another hit in its solar plexus today, thanks to Sprint (s S), which has set up a new Partner Interexchange Network (PIN) that is essentially a peering service for VoIP providers.

“Operators are searching for alternatives for how to deliver voice and data traffic,” said Dan Dooley, president of Sprint Wholesale Solutions. “At Sprint, we are seeing greater demand for voice over IP services. As more companies adopt VoIP and migrate away from traditional TDM voice services, there is a definite need for affordable, scalable technologies to securely exchange voice traffic. This is what PIN provides.”

For a long time, VoIP providers have had to use the old-fashioned voice networks as a bridge to other VoIP services — and this costs money. Now, the direct peering of VoIP services means that companies can offer ever cheaper flat-rate voice plans because they can save on settlement costs with the old-style companies. This kind of peering is standard practice for large Internet service providers such as Level 3 (s LVLT), Comcast (s cmcs), Cogent and, of course, Google.

Sprint’s new exchange is just a reflection of the new reality. As voice over the Internet becomes more pervasive, we are going see prices plummet but usage increase. As our friend Andy Abramson points out, we are finally entering the era of the voice API, where voice is just a feature of many applications.

This past Friday, Stacey wrote that broadband isn’t just the web, but is our future. And that includes voice and voice-rich applications and services. She put it nicely when she wrote: “Broadband, from the last mile that connects our homes to the long-haul networks that move the traffic around the world, is our voice, our video, our web and our connection to one other.”

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.