Cheap Talk

How new Internet telecommunications technology could revolutionize the third world

You probably take your access to communications for granted. Your Internet bandwidth charges wind up wrapped up inside your comparatively enormous college housing bill, now that the University policy has changed you probably don’t have outgoing phone service on that presidential-looking red phone in your common room, and your monthly statement for the annoying plastic box you carry around in your pocket that plays Beethoven’s Ninth at inopportune moments in class likely goes to your parents and rarely tops 40 or 50 dollars. The upshot of all this is that you can IM your blockmate in the next room (“Dinner?” “sure.”) or your lab partner in the Quad at liberty, and call Grandpa Max in Wichita (provided it’s a weekend or after 8 p.m.) and never have to worry about how much it costs.

But we live in a diverse community. Surely there are international students reading this article and noting that their Grandpa doesn’t live in Wichita; he lives in Shanghai, and it costs something like a dollar a minute to call there from most cell phones. There may even be some reading this who can’t call their families at all, because their families live in a developing country where they don’t have a telephone—they use a shared one in their town, because telephone wiring is too expensive to run it the last mile and get it into individual homes.

One of the great emerging technologies poised to address these prohibitive costs of providing telephony in the third world is broadly called Voice over Internet Protocol (Voice over IP, or VoIP). The essential idea is that real-time voice conversations, even between two people both using land-line telephones, can take place over any distance at very low cost because the conversations can be digitized and carried over the existing Internet infrastructure.

The Internet is a good tool for this for two reasons. First, it’s stronger than the phone networks. Huge amounts of money are spent yearly deploying routers and switches and fancy fiber cables all over the world, and in sending up geostationary satellites to rest above sub-Saharan Africa and beam Internet access (albeit at high cost) to Internet cafes in developing countries. And digitized voice itself is efficient: A standard telephone Internet connection over the same wire that carries a single analog conversation can carry five or six equivalent digital conversations with minimal perceived signal degradation.

Secondly, the Internet is built up on a principal called “end-to-end.” Unlike the telephone system, the Internet is a dumb network. All it does is, in principle, is take data and send it off to where it’s going. It doesn’t care what kind of data it’s carrying, or who the data are coming from, and you don’t need a license to plug a machine in and start transmitting data, or to write software that transmits new kinds of data. This means that voice transmissions can be made efficiently, both because anyone can improve upon the algorithms used to produce them and, more importantly, because they can piggyback off a much larger network designed to carry a huge variety of traffic that is, in some cases, much more demanding—consider, for example, that one huge and very lucrative industry has sprung up entirely around the demand (in a particular demographic) for live on-demand streaming video, which requires orders of magnitude more bandwidth than telephony.

Tapping into the Internet for voice communications isn’t a new idea. It’s likely, in fact, that you’ve used VoIP unwittingly. Most calling cards, and in particular just about all of the very cheap ones you see in convenience stores, are provided by companies taking advantage of the technology. They have offices somewhere in America and satellite offices in a wide variety of foreign countries: You call the American office, your voice is digitized, and then it’s sent over the Internet to, for instance, the office in Ghana, where it’s transformed back into a voice signal and connected at the cost of a local call.

But I confess I’ve deceived you: Ghana is a bad example, because VoIP is illegal there. The established phone companies have something of a monopoly on the telecommunications sector, and they don’t appreciate Internet service providers entering into their business arena and interrupting their revenue streams. At first, this seems like a typical third-world-corrupt-government sort of challenge: Because the prime minister’s third cousin owns the phone company, say, competitors find their leases suddenly expiring and their power being shut off without explanation.

In truth, though, the problem is deeper. Deploying copper wire telephone service to rural areas in West Africa is expensive, and the obvious source of money to do something like this is from toll call revenues. Slice toll call revenue by making phone calls cheaper and, on the one hand, more Ghanaians can afford to talk to their relatives overseas more often at Internet cafes; but on the other hand, more Ghanaians have to wait longer before they can have telephones in their home, or before wireless phone service can be deployed in their area.

The issue is a sticky one, and there’s no easy answer. Reliable communications networks are, next to government stability and electrical power, perhaps one of the most important services a growing economy needs. Increasing the cost of VoIP in a country or making it illegal will, economists feel, simply reduce the amount of communication that particular country has with the outside world (telecom is apparently, for you ec concentrators, a very elastic good). On the other hand, long-term infrastructure developments like rural wiring and the deployment of higher bandwidth fiber lines—the sorts of projects which Internet cafe owners are in no position to provide and which telecom companies can’t afford as long as they’re losing money to VoIP—are essential if the economic growth in the country is to be a lasting paradigm.

Neither the problems facing VoIP nor the problems it causes seem sufficient to hold it at bay. Particularly in America, where Internet access is widely available, it’s starting to show up more and more—already big corporations are deploying it internally, because it affords them greater control and improved efficiency in their phone systems.

Surely over the next few years Harvard students and others will follow suit, adopting en masse software like Skype, a sort of VoIP-meets-instant-message program allowing free high quality real-time voice chat with other Skype users. The real goal, however, is not to improve our blocking group dinner coordination systems. Rather, it’s to ensure that some time down the road, VoIP will take telecommunications in the third world and, despite the odds, render it from a convoluted and corruption-riddled endeavor into a foregone conclusion the whole world enjoys without a second thought.

Matthew A. Gline ’06 is a physics concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.