PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Voice over IP is coming your way soon.
November 1998

Voice over IP (VoIP) means many things to many people. For most corporate IT managers at present, it’s a way to manage combining internal voice communications via a single IP connection across the company wide area network. For net surfers, it’s the internet equivalent of CB radio, except that it works beyond the end of your street.

For telephone companies, it’s about to become a right royal PITA as VoIP challenges everything about the way traditional circuit switched call charges can be perpetuated, since just as companies are finding VoIP simplifies network management, so the whole internet community is poised and ready to use it to replace the phone companies archaic techniques and pricing for good.

One of the earliest experiences I had on the internet was trying out one of the various “voice over the net” systems called Freetel ( Amazingly, Freetel has barely evolved in 3 years since it’s author has been hired to work on other VoIP projects, but it’s still about as good as anything if you just want to have a chat.

However, the big catch with net voice is the lack of a dial-up facility, and the various attempts to create directory servers have generally not quite hit the spot, as those who try to use Microsoft NeMeeting (free with IE) will testify. It’s all a bit too much like the contacts pages of some sleazy magazine.

Contact initiatives like AOL’s instant messenger and ICQ are all very well, but they require the users to be sat at the PC (or at least, nearby) in order that the two parties to the conversation can be connected. But now something seems to happened recently that might change this. I was thumbing through a catalogue the other day, and discovered that it is now possible to get a “free from license” walky-talky that is actually half decent, and not at all to be confused with some awful CB apparatus.

There are 8 channels allocated at 466MHz for 500mW power transceivers, using NBFM. This is not high security radio, but it works up to 3-4 km, and is free – apart from the cost of charging the batteries. Details of the scheme are on the web (of course) at

Specific UK details of PMR 466 (as she is known) according to the UK specifications were not available when I looked – the Radio Communication Agency’s web server was either down or they have changed all the urls since indexing it.

However, various (non UK) manufacturers now produce these systems, and this one <radio2.jpg: Cobra MicroTalk 300> costs about £100 and also includes 38 sub channels that are selected using tones. This doesn’t mean that you have 8x38 channels, but it does mean that you can set the transceivers to ignore signals that you don’t want to listen to.

It’s not a great leap of the imagination for someone to devise a cradle/adapter to connect one of these units up to a PC soundcard to enable a simple cordless phone extension to one of the various voice-over-internet systems, and when the much promised ADSL eventually arrives with its permanent connection to the internet at flat rate costs, then there’s no technical reason why you should not set up your own “alternative cellular” radio system around the house or office.

There are doubtless various rules and regulations that presently help preserve phone company monopolies that would be infringed by this, but frankly, who cares..? Their time is up anyway as the net revolution thrusts ever onwards.

The internet has spoiled the fun of many traditional businesses with its open approach and level playing field, wouldn’t it be lovely if it also manages to undo all the arrogant cellular telephone companies who regularly take £50+ a month from their customers, where the profitability is so vast that they can afford to subsidise the cost of £250 handsets down to £50 – or less..?

Aside from the “basic” voice over IP services like MS NetMeeting on the net, there are growing numbers of systems designed to route voice over IP in more specifically commercial applications. Tele-lynk is one such we have played with. It involves hardware cards, but it does allow the net to be patched directly into the local phone system, and for a person in one office to call out into the phone system another country where a corresponding gateway exists.

There are indeed telco regulations that dictate the way people are allowed to charge for this type of service, but it’s another of those “genii flees bottle” situations that will not easily be contained by impossible to enforce rules.

I expect someone will pipe and suggest that there simply isn’t enough capacity in the airwaves to cope with all this free-for-all radio – but I can just about remember when the Postmaster General stood up in parliament to explain why there simply wasn’t enough spare capacity in the airwaves to cope with additional broadcasting services apart from the BBC Home Service and Light Program.

Tune around on any radio scanner that covers from 150kHz to 1500MHz and see just how much band occupancy there really is. It’s a bit like listening to the bleating of Town Planning Committees about the disappearance of the green belt, and then flying around a county like Essex (jewel of East Anglia) to see just how much green there really is out there, and how badly the postage stamp plots for house in the towns have been crammed intoovercrowded and overdeveloped patches.

Still, I suppose this all helps to keep the prices up – and now that radio spectrum is being auctioned (the air we breathe will surely come next), creating the impression of desperate shortage is a useful tactical ploy.