Why the net neutrality debate also matters for VoIP


At my company, Zingaya, we work on VoIP solutions in click-to-call technology (which is one segment of a big industry, with Skype being the most well-known VoIP company). Given our position in this industry, my colleagues and I have watched the developments of the net neutrality court case and subsequent moves by ISPs very closely, with an eye on how these changes will impact innovation in the rapidly changing VoIP field.

With the end of FCC enforcement of open internet rules, a few select companies will very quickly be making major decisions on how fast most users will be able to access content across the web. Video streaming, as we know, takes up a plurality of bandwidth usage (and will only increase in popularity). However, the danger isn’t just limited to video. The major ISPs in the United States — Comcast and AT&T among others — often also provide voice services that directly compete with many of the services provided by VoIP. As industry analyst Phil Edholm points out, it would be easy for ISPs to push VoIP providers to a lower level of service unless those providers pay extra to be bumped up to a better service level. Since VoIP requires a certain threshold of data speed to deliver an effective sound or picture quality to customers, reducing that quality negatively impacts customer willingness to adopt VoIP over the alternatives.

What’s more, the innovative possibilities of VoIP and VoIP-related technologies, like WebRTC, will also be throttled by the lack of open internet standards. New VoIP technologies are often not just limited to voice; they incorporate video capabilities as well. VoIP services require simultaneous high quality upload and download streams, instead of just download streams as with a service like Netflix. As such, VoIP shares many of the same concerns as video streaming, and the dangers for VoIP services may be even greater.

Having a level playing field for telecommunications in particular is vital, and there’s a reason why the FCC already regulates telephone service. In the absence of net neutrality, nascent VoIP services will have a harder time gaining traction. They, like up-and-coming video streaming services, will have to pay for the data quality they need. As a result, firms in the future will not compete on the true merits of their products, but will instead compete in an environment where the best quality is granted to the firms that can pay the most — a surefire way to stifle innovation.

WebRTC is perhaps particularly interesting here, as it continues to increase in adoption and thus will be intertwined with net neutrality. According to the WebRTC standard, all media traffic is encrypted (via Datagram Transport Layer Security, or DTLS) and sent using Secure Real-time Transport Protocol (SRTP). This encryption may confound ISPs seeking to throttle bandwidth based on what kind of traffic is passing through their channels, because they will not be able to recognize the precise nature of it. In response, some ISPs have invested in expensive hardware (like DPI, deep packet inspection) for examining the packets running through their networks. Since WebRTC can and will be used in a variety of ways, there will certainly be questions regarding how providers detect what’s running inside the encrypted channels.

But in any case, net neutrality isn’t dead. First, this ruling only applies to the United States. Second, though the FCC is not appealing the ruling, it is exploring other means of enforcing open internet standards. The oversight of particular actions will occur on a more case-by-case basis, but the FCC is still also considering reclassifying internet service if those other means are not effective. These efforts are heartening, and those of us interested in the future of VoIP should be invested in supporting these open internet standards.

Alexey Aylarov is the CEO of Zingaya, which enables online calls from web pages. Aylarov is also the founder of VoxImplant, a communications cloud platform for mobile and web app developers.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user imagedb.com.

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