A VoIP Downside That Can’t Be Escaped

A downside of VoIP technology: tendency of carriers to exchange voice traffic over public Internet.

Worldwide, the telecom industry is going through a shift: a significant change from having separate voice and data networks to cheaper data networks. These data networks are now used to transmit voice traffic over the Internet. Remember PSTN? That giant voice network used by local carriers is facing its final days. It will most likely be phased out in many places in a couple of years.

Like any other system, VoIP has not only benefits. There are also VoIP downsides, and one of those is akin to the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention.

VoIP, as the name implies, works over the Internet protocol. That’s the protocol that runs modern public data networks, including the all-mighty Internet. Today, only a percentage of voice networks run over the Internet. In a few years, we believe almost all of it will.

Why is this significant? As of today, all VoIP services and users share the risk of the Internet going down. Although such situations are rare, if it ever comes up, you will likely to not only use the ability to browse and transfer files but to also make phone and video calls. So in a few years, imagine the magnitude of effects a disconnection will have when almost everyone is using VoIP over the public Internet.

The Breaking of The Internet

As recently as August 30th, 2020, a well-known US carrier CenturyLink took a deep dive exposing some of the downsides of VoIP technology. The cause of their outage is not that important. If you MUST know, it had to do with an error in their BGP protocol, the language that allows Internet peers to talk to each other. What is essential is how THEIR problem impacted the rest of US! I am not a customer of CenturyLink and, probably, neither are you, but for about 7 hours, most of us lost access to some big named sites. Among those are Amazon, Steam, Reddit, NameCheap, Discord, OpenDNS, Twitter, and many more. Heck, even access to Cloudflare, one of the biggest and most reliable networks on the Internet, was impacted!

Presumed Reliability of the Global Internet

With all the built-in redundancies, the Internet appears to be an endlessly reliable web of data networks. However, under the surface, the Internet may be an inherently more fragile system than it seems. The technology we have today hasn’t allowed us to get rid of that fragility.

Now, the reason the Internet works so well is that all interconnected ISP’s have to follow a strict set of rules. Those rules allow networks to talk to each other. But those rules are still implemented by humans who are bound to make mistakes now and then. Even a small provider could potentially cause an error that would result in a MAJOR problem.

It could break the Internet as a whole and end up restricting access to large sections of the global network! Imagine a town with heavy traffic suddenly close a whole bunch of vital roads during peak hours. Now every car has to seek a detour over other roads, eventually overfilling them and bringing the total traffic to a crawl. You get the idea.

The sad part is: there is nothing we can do to prevent this from happening altogether. We will have no means to fix the situation until the ISP’s involved resolve it. The downtime will seriously affect all of us and will lead to a significant number of problems for which we will have no one to hold responsible.

Sometimes There is No Magic Bullet

All the money in the world cannot buy any of us 100% uptime; neither will it buy another Internet. This genuine risk that comes with Internet usage will remain there. Sadly, there is nothing any of us can do about it for now. So right now, the only thing that can be done is to accept that risk in exchange for all the benefits the technology brings us. We shall hope, of course, that ISP’s will work as cautiously and effectively as possible to safeguard our global network. As for the rest of us Internet users, we can only hope and look forward to a future where that risk no longer exists. For the time being, though, this is an eventuality we must learn to live with since the benefits of technology greatly outweigh VoIP downsides.

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