Information sharing has been the basis of economic growth and development over the last couple of decades, making this period be termed as the ‘Information Age’. Access to knowledge and information have become critical as they give one an edge over people who have no access to information, hence, the saying ‘information is power’. The rapid sharing of information that has been realized over the last few decades can be attributed to advancements in information and telecommunication technologies that initially provided telephony and have now made the internet available for communications over the web. This paper carries out a brief overview of the design and architectural setups of traditional public switched telephone networks (PSTN) and the internet, with the view of establishing the best way forward for traditional telephone operators.
Public Switched Telephone Networks
PSTNs designed to provide end-to-end voice connections through communication channels that would allow asynchronous communication between parties. The design of PSTN networks is such that the parties involved have to be actively using the system simultaneously at the time of communication. Initially, all that was needed was a direct wire connection between the two points of communication. However, this model became inefficient as more people started using telephones – it became impractical and expensive to create direct physical point-to-point connections to all people one needed to communicate with. Thus, the idea of call-switching was born. All calls had to go through a central call centre where telephone operators would manually re-route them to their destinations. The human operators were later replaced by intelligent circuits and, most recently, digital circuits that continue to re-route calls across the telecommunication industry.
The fact that calls have to go through specific infrastructure and routes defined by telecommunication industry players gives them the ability to track and manage every telephone call made through their intelligent systems which are interconnected across the globe. Telecommunication companies are, therefore, able to charge their clients for the usage of their equipment and services in a structured manner.
The Internet comprises numerous of interconnected networks with millions, if not billions, of nodes. Each node or network operates independently and is not “aware” of activities going on in its neighbourhood. Communication across the internet can be carried out in various forms including voice, text, graphics, and video. The Internet so vast that it is impossible to exhaust its resources. This is because of its open nature that allows anybody to join and contribute not only to its content, but also its infrastructure.
The Internet has no centralized management system that determines how information is shared across devices as is the case with PSTN. On the contrary, packets are seldom transmitted along a single path. Packets follow different, random paths and converge at the destination where they converge to relay the original message. The random transmission of packets through undefined paths makes internet communication harder to predict, making it more secure than PSTN as one cannot foretell the path(s) the information will follow. It is, therefore, harder to eavesdrop on information shared over the Internet compared to traditional telephone lines. The undefined nature of internet communication also makes it hard to put a cost to it, limiting service providers to selling bandwidth.
Intelligence in “Stupid Networks”
A stupid network is one where communication occurs between powerful, intelligent devices, but the communication channels between them are basic, cheap, and dumb. The channels transport information to their destinations “blindly” without knowing the target terminal(s). In essence, it is the data being transmitted from point A to B that determines which path to follow, as opposed to following the path provided by the channel. There is no investment in complex, expensive routing mechanisms.
Stupid networks are intelligent in the following ways:
They have access to numerous infrastructure without incurring any major costs. This is because data can be routed through any terminal without overwhelming it – the user never notices.
Stupid networks are not limited to performing particular functions. This creates room for innovation and expansion, making them popular with the masses.
They have universally defined ways of handling things, meaning that they can easily be configured, operated, and maintained.
These give stupid networks and edge over smart networks which are complex, expensive and largely proprietary.
The Internet is a perfect example of a “stupid network”. No single body or individual can claim ownership of the Internet. It is a collection of numerous terminals and networks that work together to achieve the goals of internet users. The terminals and networks contribute servers and workstations that serve as hosts and DNSs for internet traffic. Internet traffic can be directed through any public server across the world. This architecture of the internet makes it impossible to govern. There is no body or institution that has outright authority to govern the internet as yet, reinforcing its status as a dumb network.
Torrent services are other examples of applications that rely on “stupid networks” to achieve their goals. They share data through peer-to-peer terminal connections with terminals acting as mini-servers. Any individual can access data from other torrent users via a torrent client. There is no central server hosting data: the information is hosted in user devices across the torrent community. The large number of users provide multiple copies of similar files/data, improving reliability and access speeds. Once a person has downloaded the data he or she wanted, he or she can join other torrent users as a seed/host is s/he so wishes.
Future of The Telecommunications Industry
The internet provides Voice over IP (VOIP) communication providing stiff competition to traditional telephone services. This is because VOIP is cheaper to establish and maintain as it does not depend on complex infrastructure. In addition, VOIP does not limit users to company defined policies and packages as traditional telecommunication partners do, making them become increasingly popular. The fact that the quality of VOIP services has improved so much so that it is almost matching PSTN provides a big threat to the sustainability of telephone services in the future. In fact, it is estimated that the telecommunication industry will have lost approximately 386 billion dollars to companies that provide communication companies by 2018.
The telecommunication industry should, therefore, act fast if they are not to become victims of the evolution of technology as RiM and Nokia did. Telecommunication companies should harness their financial might to invest in research on voice over IP services with the aim of making them as efficient PSTN if not better. Once this is achieved, the telecom companies should start integrating their services with VOIP technology to keep up with advancements in technology. They could also expand their portfolio to include other services provided by other internet communication services such as video calls and streaming.
Regulation of Communication Services provided over the Internet
VOIP and other internet communication services need to be regulated if telecommunication companies are to harness them to provide improved, cheaper communication services. There have been attempts to apply mainstream telecommunication regulations to VOIP services without success. This is because existing laws are largely set to manage infrastructure and licensing, which are insignificant components of communication services provided over the internet. It will, therefore, be important that telecommunication service providers, regulatory bodies, and other interested bodies invest in the development of rules and regulations govern the provision of communication services via the Internet. It will be important to include all stakeholders to guarantee fairness during policy development. This is because consumers of internet communication services such as the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators (CBUI) are worried that the telecommunication industry may attempt to introduce their monopolistic business models to the internet.
The provision of communication services over the internet has not only expanded the scope of communication services from voice to video communication, but also made it cheaper by consolidating resources from millions of internet users. Consequently, many people are embracing communication over the internet, eating into the income of traditional telecommunication firms. The firms should, therefore, invest in the development of VOIP and other internet communication protocols to protect their business from being rendered useless by advancements in technology. This should include investing in the setup of appropriate legislation, rules, and regulations to govern the industry.
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