Ever since America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorised the universal transition of old PSTN telephone networks to platforms based on Internet Telephony (IP), there’s been a scramble, as telecoms companies rush to replace their existing infrastructure of copper wires with fibre optic cabling.
The FCC’s Chairman Tom Wheeler has suggested some guidelines to help smooth the process, and the UK’s telecoms watchdog Ofcom has issued recommendations of its own, as the convergence continues. In this article, we’ll consider some of the issues involved.
What’s Convergence, Anyway?
Broadly speaking, convergence describes the coming together of various types of digital media – images, text, video, sound, etc. – so that they can be distributed to a wide range of devices, over several digital networks.
Satellite, mobile, cable, digital terrestrial and broadband services are employed to move data packets, voice calls, and multimedia to consumer devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops, and televisions.
The apparently seamless delivery of content over different platforms is being achieved through a convergence of the various networks, themselves – and the ongoing transition from voice networks based on traditional TDM to real-time Internet-driven communications is part of that.
Keeping Customers Connected
One of the fears for this transition is the negative impact on consumers, as telecoms carriers reduce or remove existing voice services during the change. The FCC has addressed this issue with a set of proposed rules, which would first require service providers to issue warnings to their customers before replacing their old infrastructure.
Fair warning in this case has been given a time limit. The recommendations suggest that residential customers be notified three months ahead of any plans to retire the copper-based networks, while non-residential consumers should get around six months’ warning.
Chairman Wheeler’s proposals would require carriers to offer their customers a contingency package, with backup power supplies in the event of outages, and to put a technical support plan in place immediately, allowing for 8 hours of standby power. This should be increased to 24 hours, within a three-year period.
The FCC and Ofcom have given assurances that a competitive business environment should be maintained, throughout the transition. No hard and fast directives have been issued, yet. For now, there are draft proposals in place, requiring replacement services to be offered at rates in keeping with the legacy services they’re replacing – and with terms and conditions of contract that are similar or better.
The FCC proposals set out standards to assess whether or not the new telecoms services on offer are actually better than the old ones they’re replacing, and that the needs of consumers are still being met. The criteria suggested will take in issues like:
- Assuring the reliability of new networks, and ensuring they have sufficient capacity to meet demands.
- Maintaining a high standard of voice quality and Internet access.
- Ensuring that security protocols in the new IP-based networks are at least on a par with the legacy systems.
- Providing adequate support for emergency services and call centre operations.
- Allowing for redundancy, so that substitute networks or coverage from alternate providers keeps networks constant.
- Providing good levels of access and assistive technology for those with disabilities – including medical monitors and alarm services.
Managing Human Resources
For telecoms companies, convergence and transition issues extend to the workforce. Networks incorporating voice and data have to be managed – and organisations will need to reassess how their voice telephony staff and IT personnel can best work together, to make the transition to VoIP a smooth one.
In the past, data and voice have occupied separate camps. With a single network based on IP, convergence will have to occur at the staff level.
There’ll be cultural issues to address. Traditionally, voice communications people have been the ones to deal with customers and suppliers on a one-to-one basis. This was distinct from their colleagues in IT, whose main concerns have been hardware, software, and data networking issues. With the merging of disciplines, roles will have to change.
Education can help. Some level of cross-training in the likes of network infrastructure, data and voice applications would be a good start. A mutual understanding of issues like software upgrading and patching from voice and data personnel would make it easier to determine when such upgrades are most needed, and how best to implement them.
VoIP convergence is all about communications – and communication between the various parts of an organisation will be essential in making the transition to it work.
As well as skills training, voice and data people will need to speak a common language. So interaction between the two groups is a must. Terminology, working practices, and ideology (update regularly vs. on-demand, and so on) will have to be agreed upon, and shared.
Overall business strategies and operations will also have to take the transition to IP telephony into account – and be adjusted accordingly.
With wider coverage and greater capacity becoming available due to the shift, both enterprise and consumer can benefit – if the transition is handled properly.