Hello Voice My Old Friend, Goodbye PSTN

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After a hiatus, voice is back.  And IP continues to push the public switched telephone network to the dustbin, but the line has moved a matter of inches rather than yards.

Google's Fiber Phone rolled out this week, symbolizing the importance of voice and the role of IP.  For companies like Vonage and hundreds of millions of Skype users, Google's introduction of a dedicated VoIP service that looks like a landline seems to be a bit, well, retro/slow/lame.  But Google needs a triple play offering and people are still buying landlines.  Cell phones run out of power and wireless coverage is not universal. At $10 a month for unlimited local and nationwide calling, plus free voicemail transcription, Fiber Phone is a good bargain when compared to other over the top (OTT) offers and stock PSTN phone service.

But Fiber Phone may also be a gateway drug to other Google voice services.  Last week, Google opened up access to its speech recognition API (Hello allabouttheapi.com!) .  The Google Cloud Speech API covers over 80 languages and works with any application in real-time streaming or batch mode, with tools to convert audio to text (see free voicemail transcription above), enable command and control through voice,  and filter inappropriate content in text results for some languages.

Imagine if Google APIs could be used to screen out the loathsome hordes of "Windows Support" and IRS lawsuit fraudster calls before your phone even rings? With a combination of caller ID and smart processing, you may never have to hear a junk call or a political pollster ever again live or in your voice mail.

That's just one example.  Legacy phone companies aren't even close to doing anything that sophisticated to add value and generate more revenue from voice, either  wireline or wireless.  Value-added speech processing remains an untapped mine of possibilities with cloud providers such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook prepared to generate value from voice interactions.  Maybe T-Mobile has some ideas on this side, but it seems to be more focused on better value for consumers and businesses at this point than generating recurring revenue from new services.

Speaking of T-Mobile, there was a lot of buzz about it offering a data-only plan for mobile devices on March 30, kicking voice service to the curb. Further clarifications from T-Mobile indicate that the moves are tweaks to existing data-only plans already available as a part of the company's accessibility plans for the hearing impaired and deaf.  The company hasn't aggressively advertised data only plans, but, like the secret menu at In-and-Out Burger, you can get what you want if you know what to ask for.

When the smoke clears, data only isn't that big of a deal in the larger scheme of things, especially since there have been data only plans for tablets forever.  The more interesting breakthrough would be a pure "data only" plan that INCLUDED voice over LTE (VoLTE) calls because a VoLTE call is, well, an IP app with some quality of service (QoS) on it until (and if) it is switched over/into the PSTN. 

Why should you pay extra for a VoLTE call on a data-only plan, hmm? T-Mobile should flip the script and include "free" VoLTE calls, charging extra for access to the PSTN.  After all, the additional expense and burden at this point for all cellular carriers is dragging around their existing 2G/3G infrastructure, plus converting calls to the legacy PSTN network. Extra charges for PSTN calls would force/accelerate consumers to switch to an all IP network, but such a economically based scheme would drive regulators nuts.

Regardless, voice continues to move forward to IP while hardware vendors such as GENBAND try to find a way to accelerate the switchover from PSTN to an all-IP network.  How long that will take is unclear, but efforts to move from analog to digital TV don't offer a lot of comfort that we'll see anything approaching a majority switchover to IP in the next decade.  We still have fax lurking around, after all.




Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing Editor

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