This week’s announcement of Google Voice integration with Gmail, with free calling and free long distance is perhaps one of the most controversial moves yet by an Internet company to change the telecom industry. Free computer to computer calling (a la Skype) isn’t problematic, it’s when free extends to long distance and calls to to the PSTN (public switched telephone network) that the Google service gets spooky.
Telecommunications companies around the world continue to invest billions of dollars into *the last mile*, that’s the distance from your house back to their closest switching office. Folks with a regular telephone (as opposed to a VoIP phone) rely on that last mile to make and receive telephone calls. Despite pushes to move everything to the Internet, that last mile is going to be important for a long time to come.
If Google is offering free calls to the last mile (this is called call termination), you know they aren’t paying [hardly] anything to the carrier who is actually providing that last mile call termination. They’ve managed to strong arm someone into offering it at no charge, perhaps in exchange for some other service. Where it gets very spooky is with Long Distance Termination. Again – free over Google, but there is a real and true cost to terminate a call to a standard telephone in Canada and the United States. If no one is paying for that call, then the local carrier is losing money, and has less revenue to be able to maintain their local telephone network.
Let’s look at an example: I called my PRIMUS phone from Gmail. The call routed from Google, through Verizon, up to Allstream, and then down to Primus. All for free to me. Perhaps Google did indeed pay Verizon something, who had to then pay Allstream, and lastly Primus. And this is the call flow for a VoIP call, where most of the routing bypasses the local mile of infrastructure, since my Primus phone is layered on top of my Rogers Broadband connection. Confused yet?
If I call my Bell phone line from Gmail [yup, 2 carriers in this house – diversity and redundancy is important with 2 teleworkers under the same roof], the call still starts in the US, at Google’s data centre, heads off to Verizon, up to Bell Canada, and then down my little copper wires from the Richmond Hill Bell wire centre. If there’s no costs to the user [me], then there are no revenues flowing to Verizon to maintain their interconnection with Bell, and no revenues to make sure my little copper wires from the Bell wire centre stay nice and healthy, or get upgrades when needed. At some point, in the not-too-distant future, there won’t be any money left to manage, maintain and upgrade the public telephone network. That’s all well and good if EVERYONE in the world has migrated to VoIP service over Broadband Internet, but not so good if you are a carrier who has to maintain 2 networks, one for VoIP and one for the public telephone network. It’s certainly bad news if you have to rely on the public telephone network for your phone services.