Real Time Communications Featured Article

International Calling: From Phoning Home to Stimulating Business

September 01, 2015

International phone calls started out as expensive and of poor quality.  VoIP and real time communications (RTC) have transformed both the process and function of international communications into a much richer, more flexible and vibrant multimedia experience that continues to grow and evolve.

At first, international calls were carried via long-distance cables to many destinations. Satellite became the gap filler to add capacity where copper (and later fiber) didn’t reach, at the cost of higher voice compression, higher pricing, and speaker lag.   Due to the cost and complexity of long distance carriage, phone calls between nations were often rudimentary affairs, with poor voice quality and little guarantee of service quality. 

VoIP was the first wave of transformational technology to hit international calling, first hammering price and then adding quality.  Under analog PSTN standards, a single T-1 line could carry a maximum of 24 calls at a time. Converting the T-1 into an all-data line with various compression schemes meant that carriers could easily carry double, triple, or more calls using the same physical infrastructure, abet with some loss of quality compared to a baseline PSTN call.

Skype and numerous other over-the-top (OTT) services demonstrated that you could essentially drop the price of a phone call to “free” – the cost of an underlying broadband connection – while increasing the quality by using high-definition (HD) codecs to capture a wider range of voice without losing anything in the compression process.  People could experience long distance (and local) calls so good that it was like calls were “right next to each other” rather than continents away.

Subversive Skype also brought the other disruptive factor to communications: affordable and easy video calling.  The software took advantage of the dropping price and additional capabilities of PC and mobile phone hardware to enable person-to-person video calling over broadband without charging money for the client.   People and businesses could conduct person-to-person video calling without spending thousands of dollars on additional hardware.


The final transformative key for businesses away from voice and into multimedia communications was in affordable screen sharing, once again thanks to Skype and other OTT providers.  Teams in different locations could use Skype or any other OTT service to conduct conference calls and briefings with voice, video, and presentations, with all parties able to see the same documents together.  The process of distance meeting became streamlined and simplified through the power of software and broadband connectivity, enabling teams to efficiently and effectively share information.

WebRTC is the next evolution of multimedia communication.  Instead of locking people and businesses into a specific software client and service, WebRTC is democratizing rich multimedia communications by enabling anyone to add voice, video, and screen sharing capabilities to any web page.  People and businesses can now use WebRTC to build applications around their needs, rather than building their work flow around a particular software package or service.

Location of the customer or resource doesn’t matter anymore, only access to a broadband connection to connect people with the things and people they need to reach.  We have only begun to scratch the surface of how WebRTC will transform business and personal communications.  Already, Amazon is using WebRTC to provide remote technical support to its customers, the health industry is embracing WebRTC to deliver virtual doctor appointments and emergency medical consults for delivering valuable and cost-effective medical care, and educators are able to tap into the reach of WebRTC to provide students with access to unique science, art, and technology experiences through Google Hangouts in the classroom.

But Skype still has some tricks to teach the rest of the RTC world.  Microsoft is using Skype to experiment with real-time translation (RTT), enabling two parties that speak different languages to “speak” to each other, with the computer providing both a near-real time audio translation and a simultaneous text chat transcript.  I expect WebRTC sessions will be able to be routed through Microsoft and other translation engines in the future, providing clearer and more effective communications between times, regardless of where they physically reside or what native languages are used.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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