VoIP’s sound may be iffy, but it’s not going away

The sound of people chatting using Skype and other free telephony services is not what you’ll want to hear if you’re a company investigating voice over IP (VoIP) technology.

It’s not that VoIP doesn’t have a place in the office – it can be a very attractive technology for businesses. Rather, it’s simply that the sound quality you’ll hear when using free VoIP services such as Skype, Jajah, Paltalk, PeerMe, Gizmo Project and Vbuzzer to make telephone calls is generally poor.

If you’ve ever made or received a call placed from a desktop computer or a handheld wireless phone using Skype and other peer-to-peer IP telephony software, then you know how bad it can be. In the words of Ovum Inc. research analyst Jan Dawson: “Skype [quality] can make for very good phone calls or dreadful calls.”

Most often it’s the latter. Granted, it all depends on the quality of the connection – but when it comes to calls made on-line, you never know exactly what that connection will be. On the Internet, streams of voice and data rarely travel along the same path twice.

As a result, Internet calls can warble, echo, reverberate, crackle, fade and sometimes simply drop entirely. With Skype and other Internet phone software, you get what you pay for – and in the case of Skype, Canadians are now paying zilch to use the service from their computers to make calls to regular telephones in Canada and the United States, at least until the end of the year.

Free service is getting a lot of people interested in VoIP, but it may not be doing this fledgling industry much of a favour. A lot of people are getting their first experience with VoIP technology through Skype and other similar Internet-based services, an experience which can be underwhelming.

In reality, not all VoIP sounds like Skype. In fact, communication services providers like Bell and Telus, and network equipment makers such as Cisco and Nortel, must be beside themselves at the moment. They’ve spent a whole lot of time, effort and money trying to convince the masses that VoIP can be a business-grade service.

Despite their efforts, many businesses are still reluctant to invest in VoIP technology because of perceptions that it’s an inferior voice communication alternative. Even networking professionals – those who build and manage communication systems for businesses – remain skeptical. That’s an assertion based on a survey conducted by Network World Canada of more than 270 of these experts in small, medium and large business across the country. Concerns about poor reliability and voice quality are the major reasons why VoIP is not being used in business, according to most of those surveyed.

Even those who are using VoIP in their businesses are moving cautiously. About 25 per cent of the survey’s respondents say they have introduced VoIP systems at their companies, but more than half of those say less than 10 per cent of their organization’s telephones are now VoIP-enabled. In other words, they’ve taken the plunge, but are hardly deep into the technology. Another problem with the adoption of VoIP in businesses is the thing most vendors don’t talk about. There’s a lot of work that’s often necessary to prepare existing data communication infrastructures to support voice in the first place. Some companies that have made the move to VoIP suddenly realize it’s necessary to reconfigure and retrofit their data communication networks in order to use it.

So VoIP has more than enough image problems as it is, and a service like Skype can perpetuate the opinion that it’s a poor-quality solution. That’s a pity, because there are compelling reasons for businesses to dabble a bit.

“The quality and reliability of Skype means very few businesses would want to use it to talk to their customers,” Mr. Dawson says. “But a good application might be where employees are travelling abroad and might use Skype to call back to the office. It’s a good fit for internal communications … where one employee is talking to another. Lowering the cost of that [kind of call] as much as possible could be a high priority for a business.”

Lawrence Surtees, a telecom analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, agrees and suggests companies might consider using Skype-like systems as an alternative to placing calls from a hotel telephone or through a regular wireless service. The potential cost savings would appeal to communications and IT services managers looking to rein-in the cost of expensive wireless roaming charges or discourage the use of pricey hotel telephone service rates.

“You can see where some IT people might even encourage use of Skype as a cost-savings service,” Mr. Surtees says. “What IT guy is going to refuse that?”

But when is free ever really free? What is Skype’s real motive?

Mr. Dawson says the move by the company is an effort to grab market share. “The fact that they’re offering it for free is to capture customers and then hope they can keep them.”

Mr. Dawson says he believes the company wants to build a subscriber base that it can then introduce to Skype’s other paid-for services, such as voicemail, audio translation and conferencing services.

Mr. Surtees, like other market watchers, says he believes Skype’s free offering coincides with a bold move to undermine a major competitor – in this case Vonage, a low-cost VoIP service that’s on the verge of issuing an initial public offering (IPO).

“At a minimum, Skype has in its sights the other IP telephony players,” Mr. Surtees says. “There are two sets of customers [it wants to attract] – first-time VoIP consumers, and wresting customers from existing VoIP providers, particularly Vonage.”

Regardless of the reasons, free Skype will probably draw businesses and introduce them to the technology of VoIP. And while poor quality of voice service may give some the wrong first impression and potentially be a major setback for VoIP adoption in the business world, I think the sound of free will ultimately resonate for many.

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