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Technology Corner

Conquest of the Baby Bells

Technology Corner Written by Robert Reed

For any cost-conscious Internet user, the sight of the latest phone bill lying on the doormat is not a pretty one. Unfortunately, it really is not something that we can realistically avoid. After all, we need the phone companies to gain access to our service provider, even if we are usually able to get this access at a local call charge. This state of affairs is one that has been with us now for a great deal of time, but will it continue?

Things change, they always do.

A small American company has decided to kick the phone companies where it hurts, in the pocket.

The Internet works by transmitting small chunks or packets of data from place to place, and so its use is limited to anything that can be split into small chunks and then reassembled upon receipt at the other end. Normal phone calls, on the other hand, are transmitted using a continuous signal that permits the people at either end to speak directly to each other. While we can convert the packet technique, for use on normal phone lines, (our modems do this automatically), it is not possible to transmit your voice from one end to another using small chunks of data. Until now that is. Enter VocalTec with their Internet phone software and suddenly the whole face of the Internet changes not only into something used to e- mail your friends and flame your enemies, but also into something you can use to talk to anyone around the world for the cost of a local phone call.

New Jersey-based VocalTec is a small company that has successfully developed a data compression technique that allows its users to transmit audio information in packet form. This means that anyone who owns a Personal Computer, a sound card, a microphone and a copy of this software can physically talk to anyone else (who also owns VocalTec's Internet Phone software) on the Internet. A technique that exists to a certain extent within the technology known as Voicemail.

However for every silver lining there is a cloud.

The technology is by no means perfect, when you want to speak to someone on the Internet, you are not able to simply have the phone ring at the other end. Because of the fact that the information is separated, transmitted, reformed and then decompressed, the transmission carries an awkward time delay. Usually about 1 or 2 seconds. To cut down on the amount of data that needs to be transmitted, the software samples at a lower rate, and this tends to make the voice partially distorted and fuzzy. You may be wondering why this will worry the Phone Companies? There has always been a need to speak to people who are, for whatever reason, out of earshot, and since the phones invention we have been paying for the privilege. Then along came the Internet. Now many users pay, not only to speak to each other, but also to wander the information super highway. Double the business, double the profit, double the phone companies fun.

Personally I don't think that the bubble is about to burst though. While it will be possible to talk to your friends or contacts on the Internet, send pictures, text and any form of structured or unstructured data, there is still a limit to the speed at which this data can be transmitted. At times the service can be slow and cluttered, and with more data being transmitted, surely it can only get worse. What we really need is to increase our ability to send large amounts of data over the phone line, which requires a larger bandwidth. The only people who can provide that at the moment are the phone companies. I think that if a balance isn't reached between the users of the Internet and it's providers, then we are unlikely to see any major assistance from the very people who could make the Internet into an international solution. After all, would you willingly provide a service that could potentially decrease your own business?

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