November 29, 2004

MY HAPPY EXPERIENCE with BellSouth’s robot-driven repair service this weekend led to a column, which will be up later in the week at TCS. But here are a couple of thoughts that didn’t make the column.

One is that when it comes to reliable phone service, you still can’t beat the Bells. One of the local cable companies, Knology, offers phone service, as do some other local-phone competitors. I’m glad they’re competitive, but I have serious doubts about the quality and reliability of their service compared to BellSouth’s. (I haven’t heard anything bad about Knology, to be fair, but my mother-in-law has local service from some other provider, and her service calls take, literally, months.)

Another is that the move to internet telephony as something more than a hobby or add-on is going to make reliability worse. Internet telephony seems to be on the verge of becoming a mass-market consumer item — but the Internet itself isn’t especially reliable, by phone standards.

Call me old-fashioned, or more concerned with reliability than most people (and I probably am the latter, at least) but I wouldn’t rely on a VOIP setup as my sole telephone connection. I gather that some people are, but they obviously feel differently about these things than I do.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I concur with your assessment of VOIP and POTS; when hurricane Charley came through Orlando we lost power for 3 1/2 days, others lost it for over a week, some for longer. I have a good size UPS that supports my PC, cable modem and router, but I didn’t have internet access because the cable company didn’t have power to its boxes.

Being law enforcement and an emergency responder to the county courthouse, I’m on the “special” list for my county-issued cell phone, so I had cell access while my neighbors did not. They could receive calls but couldn’t make them because for the first day after Charley public cell access was restricted to ensure emergency service workers could communicate (911 calls would go through, others would not).

My “dumb” phone from Bell South worked the entire time because Bell has battery backup and generators, and their wired network is independent of everyone else’s.

I was seriously considering VOIP up until we became Hurricane Central. Now, I might add VOIP to get real cheap long distance, but it will be in addition to POTS because of the reliability.

That’s certainly my view. The Bells have a different attitude — and network setup — than most other people. On the other hand, reader Stan Davis emails:

As a Senior Engineer for a small, up-and-coming VoIP company, I can assure you that your fears about the unreliability of VoIP telephony are fast becoming unfounded. It very much depends on the company, of course, but our network has double and sometimes triple back-ups for every piece of mission critical equipment. Our goal is to not have a single dropped or choppy call and we are 99.9% successful in that. Our biggest obstacle lies, ironically, not with the Internet per-se, but with the Bell companies, and others, that provide the DSL (and cable) to the home. This piece is the weakest link and entirely out of the VoIP industries hands. You might be surprised to hear that a very large portion (sorry, don’t have exact numbers, but would guess 80%) of all domestic long distance telephone calls today travel over a VoIP network at some point! The same is true for mobile calls. I hope this will help you to understand the extent that VoIP has penetrated the telephony industry already, unbeknownst to the general public.

Actually I did know that the numbers are big. I’m delighted to hear that people are taking this seriously, because I think that peoples’ primary phone lines should be extremely reliable. Of course, the local-loop segment is the most important, and I don’t think those are treated as carefully for Internet access as for Plain Old Telephone Service, meaning that POTS is still likely to be more reliable.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader John Steele emails:

Further to your item about POTS vs VOIP I can second some of your correspondents comments. We were without power for 5 weeks after Hurricane Andrew and NEVER lost phone service. Without power for that long no matter how reliable they make a VOIP backbone there is no UPS available to mankind that will last that long :-)

Indeed.