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IP-Phone or Internet-Phone?

IP telephony was all the rage at the Atlanta Networld+Interop show. But it is far from clear that some of the people pushing IP telephony know all that much about IP networks.

A lot of old-line telephony people are seeing IP as just another control and data path that can be used by their existing telephone infrastructures. Some of these same people do also understand that IP can be used to decompose the traditional phone switches and PBXs into distributed systems -- turning what was once very large and expensive boxes into collections of smaller and cheaper boxes.

Using IP as a connectivity path and permitting the decentralization of telephone equipment are quite useful things to do. They could even facilitate a more efficient and less expensive telephone network. Replacing the corporate PBX with a workstation that operates as a controller for cheap Ethernet-connected desktop telephones is an attractive idea.

But most of these people can not see past the existing telephony architecture and are reproducing that architecture in an IP environment. That architecture is called by the telephone industry "The Intelligent Network (IN)." This is in direct contrast to the Internet which commentator David Isenberg has called "The Stupid Network." Those who want to reproduce the IN on top of the Internet may be achieving some efficiencies but they are missing the most important factor in the success of the Internet and, in the long term, will suffer because of that.

Services in the IN are provided by the network, actually by servers in the network but in the IN these servers are seen as part of the network and are run by the same company that runs the rest of the particular IN network. Services in the Internet are peer to peer between the users of the Internet or, when the services are provided by servers in the network, those servers do not need to be run by the network provider.

Historically it has been quite hard for new services to arise in the IN. The service provider has to be convinced that the service will be profitable, figure out how to integrate the server functions into their network and deploy the service. In the Internet new services show up all the time. Individuals can download new applications and independent third parties can create and offer new applications servers anywhere in the 'Net.

New services are where new revenue comes from in the telephone business. Without new services the phone companies are just in a food fight over how cheap they can go for their long distance -- some are now even talking of "free" long distance if a customer agrees to pay for an Internet account. If the phone companies stick to the traditional IN architecture they will be marginilized as more agile third parties invent new services and profit from them.

disclaimer: Marginilized and Harvard do not belong in the same dictionary and the above view of phone company clue is my own.