While we wait for bandwidth-exciting efforts like the BBC archives to be put online, free to browse, view and download from about 2006, one more immediate driver for broadband is voice. Specifically, voice over IP (VoIP), using the internet to transmit voice calls. Basically put, with today's technology and internet broadband capacity Telecom's stranglehold on the local call market is, I believe, soon to be removed.
Local calling, even when it's free for home users, still earns Telecom around $1 billion a year, so it's a market worth keeping hold of. But there are regulatory factors at play here as well as economic. The telecommunications share obligations (TSO) agreement between the government and Telecom makes it clear that the country's biggest telco isn't required to provide free local calls for those wanting to use the internet for VoIP services.
I'm also reliably informed that a VoIP call isn't dramatically cheaper than a circuit switched call as I had assumed, but I have to say there are plenty of opportunities abounding for the VoIP user today.
First off, let's look at the Xbox Live launch. Microsoft's been calling for broadband rollout for years now -- Bill Gates himself has stood up and demanded telcos pull their fingers out and get broadband to the home. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, this online gaming lark, but the Xbox Live starter kit comes complete with a VoIP headset that allows users to make voice calls over their broadband connection. Developments like these will hopefully get users thinking a bit more about their calling habits. Why not reduce that line rental by switching to a lower cost line that charges you for local calls, and then make them via Xbox? The data charges should be low enough that you make a saving that way.
On top of that you've got businesses looking at VoIP to save themselves money. Not just any businesses either. Telecom itself is deploying VoIP internally and offering it to customers. That's something of a shift for the telco which has been mocked in the past for its cry of "No, no, VoIP isn't ready for mainstream yet".
Then we've got the Woosh/Vodafone Project Probe rollout, which will include voice capability, plus voice being added in to Wired Country's service in south Auckland and the potential for other services to offer voice as a cheap add on to any data offering.
Even more worrying for Telecom, file-sharing outifts like Kazaa are starting to offer voice call software (in its case, Skype) that allows users to make a quality call over the internet -- for free.
Cat among the pigeons? Absolutely, as Telecom will want to hold on to that $1 billion a year. At the very least I would expect to see some kind of price war. I can see free calls to other customers on the same network, cheap toll calls offered in a similar manner to cellphone calls today (so many free minutes per month) and cheap calls to off-network customers. That will tide us over till the Beeb gets its 1.5 million TV shows and 750,000 radio shows online. Then we'll sort out the dial-up customers from the broadband.
Brislen Computerworld's online reporter.