Thursday, August 16, 2007

Voice Quality is Getting Worse: What Would You Expect?

Those of use who grew up with one phone company got spoiled by the reliability and quality of its communications network (despite "customer service" so bad it became an oxymoron)," says technology journalist Mark Stephens, whose pen name is Robert X. Cringely. "Those of us trying to save a few bucks by piggy-backing voice services on the Internet are starting to get what we've paid for."

Skype itself now is experiencing an outage that might take 12 to 24 hours to fix (Aug. 16).

There's a larger trend at work here, and it happens in virtually all formerly highly-regulated businesses when deregulation and new technology hit. Remember when airlines were highly regulated, and could not compete on the basis of price? How did they compete? Amenities and other non-price differentiators. Of course, prices were high and not that many people flew.

Deregulation hits and all of a sudden price becomes a key competitive weapon. Of course, when people start paying lots less, something has to give. Like amenities. But more people fly now.

So here's the problem communications service provider executives face: they can't afford to run "gold plated networks" for the same reason airlines cannot. Obsessive concern about voice quality and service availability are one thing in a highly regulated environment. Such concern is quite something else in a highly competitive marketplace where customers in fact choose to pay money for service that is quite a bit less intensive than it once was.

In a nutshell, the business problem is that operators cannot afford to maintain the same obsessive levels of quality when customers demonstrably don't care. Mobile communications is the best example. Everybody uses mobile service. And everybody knows it simply is not as reliable as wired phone service. Nor is the audio quality as good. But it's a wild success, anyway.

If people will not pay you to maintain a higher quality of service, can you afford to do it? That's the problem the global communications business faces. People are voting with their pocketbooks: buying services with lesser quality on some metrics because the overal utility of mobility is so high.

In other cases, such as over the top VoIP, they are voting with their wallets to buy cheaper services with less reliable service.

Get used to it. In virtually every deregulated, formerly monopolistic industry, overall quality will drop. Of course, there's another trend as well. New, higher cost alternatives will develop. Because some people need high quality enough to pay for it.

IP communications are very valuable. They are very useful. But they are not as robust as the old public switched network, if only because of things like latency. The services can be made more rugged, of course. It just costs money.

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