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July 1, 2001
David R. Oran
VoIP Pioneer Eyes Audio Quality; Future of Data
By Bruce Christian
David R. Oran, a pioneer in voice over IP technology, offers a vision of VoIP evolution that’s a long way from where he and many industry colleagues started.
While Oran’s view of where VoIP is going can be seen as a concession to unwelcome developments in telecom, it also represents an elevation of VoIP to something that could be far more disruptive to the role of voice services than originally conceived.
For example, Oran, an engineer at Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com) and a founding member of the VoIP Forum, says he believes the voice quality over an IP connection should match CD sound, which is much better than the quality delivered by a PSTN network.
“People for years have been saying [that] the problem with voice over IP is that the voice quality isn’t as good as the PSTN,” Oran says. “I would turn that around and say, ‘No, no, no, no. The problem with the PSTN is that its voice quality isn’t as good as voice over IP.'”
Oran explains that VoIP quality seems to be lousy because “People have been shooting for the PSTN and not shooting for something a lot better.”
The frequency range of voice on the PSTN is only 3 kilohertz with only 8 bits of dynamic range. With VoIP that dynamic range can be doubled or quadrupled, Oran notes. This attention to audio quality is why the companies that are most serious about moving voice to IP have top-notch audio people working for them, he adds.
There’s plenty of opportunity for new thinking about VoIP, given the way things have turned out in the early efforts to move it into the mainstream. While many industry observers believe that VoIP technology has reached a level of reliability that would allow IP voice traffic to replace legacy traffic, Oran says that won’t happen in the United States until economic problems are solved.
“If you put aside the macroeconomics, we are definitely at that point,” Oran says. “But what is holding things up is strictly the macroeconomics of the telecom industry.
“All these telecom companies are leveraged with debt up the wazoo,” Oran says. “No way are there enough subscribers or dollars to justify the number of people in the pie. So until that whole macroeconomics thing sorts out, I think there will be a damper on it.”
And when the economic picture becomes clearer, Oran says the number of survivors offering quality VoIP products may be in single digits. “There isn’t room in the market for 30 softswitch companies,” he says. “There probably is only room in the market for five.”
Overseas is a different story. “Where the explosion is definitely going to happen is in Asia,” Oran says. “The deregulation of the telecom industry in Asia has lagged, and hence they weren’t in this situation of too many entrants and too much money chasing too few services.
“There are reports that well over half the total voice traffic in China will be over VoIP by 2004,” Oran says, adding that he does not know if those reports are true. But where VoIP is going in the more industrialized countries may represent a truer vision of the future of communications, which is the attraction that keeps Oran focused on the voice side of network technology.
Oran’s foray into the telecom world came only after he received his bachelor’s degree in English literature from Haverford College in Haverford, Penn., where he put himself through school working as a computer programmer. “Coming out of school with a degree in English, I looked around and reached the obvious conclusion,” Oran recalls.
Through the early to mid-1980s, he found himself working on base IP and data networking technology, concentrating on routing algorithms.
“Toward the end of the ’80s, I got really interested in other distributed algorithms and director systems, so I went off and built a directory system, which didn’t have wild success but did ultimately become part of this thing called DCE [data communications equipment] from the OSF [Open Software Foundation],” Oran says.
“I sort of like to work on new stuff, and when it gets institutionalized, I get less interested,” he adds with a laugh.
He then began working on wireless LANs.
“Although that is big now, then it went nowhere,” Oran says. “It was a complete niche vertical market, but you know they were just too expensive. You couldn’t use it for wire replacement, and neither the technology nor the market was ready, so it really didn’t go very far.”
At the same time, Oran was working on software for disconnected distributed file systems for mobile computers. He says he ran a group that got within three weeks of shipping a product, but the world’s leading software producer interfered, and the plans were scrapped.
“That’s when I joined Cisco,” Oran says. It was late 1995, and the company gave him a choice of what he could do. He considered RF and wireless, home networking or voice.
“I thought maybe I could learn something about this voice stuff,” Oran says. “And the more I looked at it, the more I said, ‘Gee, we can do this. This isn’t hard. Everyone thinks it’s hard because they are all wrapped up in the legacy of the PSTN.'”
He admits that first impression was wrong. VoIP was harder than he thought.
“What turns out to be easy is getting voice to run over the IP network,” he explains. “What is hard is interfacing the new world to the old world and effectively providing all the characteristics that people have become used to, whether they are actually useful or not.”
Oran believes it was feasible as early as 1994 to move voice over the Internet from a technological standpoint. But it was not commercially viable.
“There were a lot of things that had to take place, including some things about peoples’ mindset,” he says. “I would say that occurred around the middle to the end of 1996.”
Peoples’ thoughts about VoIP began to change because the amount of data moving over a network became greater than the amount of voice traffic.
Another factor was the Telecommuni-cations Act of 1996, which resulted in phenomenal growth within the industry, allowing anyone with a different approach to enter the marketplace.
“From a service provider’s standpoint, and then from an enterprise standpoint, you hit this cost threshold where it was, in fact, cheaper to do toll bypass over your data network than it was to build a parallel voice network,” Oran says.
The increased use of data and growth of data networks is why so many competitors are concerned with the Tauzin-Dingell Bill, which would deregulate high-speed data and Internet access services for the incumbents.
Oran recognizes the arguments on each side of the bill.
“One way to read the bill is that if a LEC is allowed to offer long-distance service, they’re allowed to offer it on any technology. If they are not allowed to offer long-distance service, they are not allowed on any technology.”
The other way to read the bill is to recognize that legislators “for the first time” are calling the Internet an “equivalent way to provide voice service.”
Oran says this makes the bill dangerous because it opens the door to regulating
His own opinion on the matter is to dismantle the regulatory framework independent of the technology.
“But that’s a long conversation that goes way beyond VoIP and voice,” Oran says. “It has to do with if you believe in facilities-based competition or not, and whether it’s practical to force the incumbents to open up their physical infrastructure, as opposed to their service infrastructure.”
Even though he admits to getting less interested in his projects once they become more institutionalized, Oran says he believes the voice world still holds challenges. “I’ve begun to look at the next phase of this whole evolution, which is sort of voice without telephony,” Oran says, explaining that audio and voice is simply an interaction mode of computer applications.
As such, he sees that different computer applications will be what telephone companies bank on in the future.
“You will not pay for your telephone calls, you will pay for your quality of service pipes,” Oran says. “This is one of the beauties of the Internet. It isn’t a single service network. You don’t have to deliver the gold-level service to everybody in order to deliver gold service to anybody.”
He explains that in the PSTN world, the call was the single service, and the network was built around the single call.
“In this new data world, it is not so clean,” Oran says. Many different things can be done, he adds, citing conference calls as an example. “There is no reason this has to be modeled as a telephone call,” he says. “You can model it as audio chat room. And the room is always there and always on. People just join and leave.”
“Why couldn’t you do it on the telephone service?” Oran asks. “The reason is because the resources were locked down, whether they were being used or not. In the IP world, the cost of maintaining a chat room that no one is in at the moment is epsilon above zero.”
Oran also says that once the notion of “always on” is accepted in the voice world, “There are many things you can do without forcing them in the paradigm of a telephone call.”
“This isn’t all going to happen tomorrow; this probably isn’t going to happen next year,” Oran says. “But this is why I still want to work with voice.”
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