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Earthquake Shows Faults In Traditional Telecom Model

What we need are systems that actually function when traffic scales up rapidly. Yesterday's circuit-based telecom network simply can't do that.

We don't have earthquakes on the eastern seaboard--but we did this past week. So of course everyone was phoning loved ones to make sure everything was OK. Text worked. IM worked. Facebook worked. Email worked. Skype worked. But the phones? When I called my elderly parents, I got the "all circuits are busy" recording. It was eerily like 9/11, when nobody could get through.

I've written before that the FCC needs to be rethinking its voice service regulations in the context of today's technology and market realities. This week's earthquake only confirmed that necessity in my mind.

What we need are systems that actually function when traffic scales up rapidly. Yesterday's circuit-based telecom network simply can't do that--it takes weeks for circuits to be provisioned. Conversely, the magic of IP packet switching and the underlying server infrastructure allows for rapid scalability.

Scalability is never infinite, but infrastructure automation (for which the poster child is cloud computing) has introduced close-to-real-time scaling that can handle flashmob-like traffic. It no longer occurs to us that a commercial website will be down when it becomes wildly popular (well, unless it's a government site that still insists on hosting on a single box behind the government firewall). But "circuits are busy"? Every emergency manager worth his or her salt knows that the phones won't be worth a hoot during an emergency.

It doesn't have to be that way. Even as early as last year, CNN's Money blog was writing that you could "throw your business phone away" and adopt one of the new hybrid VoIP offerings, such as Google Voice. There are scaling benefits, to be sure, but can you imagine if the cost per line at your organization were close to zero for internal lines or were simply bundled in with another application suite? (Don't say that the cost is close to zero if you're using something like Cisco's VoIP. I buy licenses and phones, and I pay maintenance on that stuff, and it's not cheap.)

Allow me to throw down several challenges to government regulators, entrepreneurs, and enterprise IT leaders:

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  • To the FCC: Quit trying to regulate the broadband world like it's an extension of the traditional telecom world. It isn't, and we don't want it to be. Our businesses and citizens need you to be supporting innovation, not throwing a lifeline to dinosaur telecom carriers. Support the ones that move to treat voice as an application on a broadband network rather than those that want traditional voice offerings to rule the roost. But regulate gently, please. The current, overly complex regulatory environment would kill innovation and raise prices if it were applied to the broadband and Internet world.
  • To entrepreneurs: Sure, you can offer conventional landline compatibilities. But how about jumping ahead and giving me a phone "number" that's actually a URL, like: Please make it easier for us to leave the old telco world behind. And while you're at it, standardize so that it's easy for different enterprises to talk with one another without going through the legacy phone system. You don't want to have to pay access charges, and neither do enterprise IT customers. Surely one of your marketing gurus can come up with a campaign that makes folks comfortable with this arrangement.
  • To enterprise IT leaders: Put away your preconceptions and start adopting Skype, Google Voice, and other competing voice and desktop video tools. Yes, I know about the doom and gloom that the security geeks in your organization will raise. Indeed, in a recent InformationWeek survey of nearly 500 business technology pros, 53% said that they had concerns about Skype security. But there were security concerns when companies were first connecting to the Internet. So tell 'em to figure it out. If Microsoft can spend $8.5 billion on Skype, I think your organization can spend a few bucks skating to where the telecom puck is going.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at or at @_jfeldman.

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