All sorts of interesting overt and covert themes can be read into the release of VoIP customer research last week by Keynote Competitive Research.
The first thing to note is that the research was released as the incumbent phone companies' legal departments were busily hammering nails into the coffin of the standalone VoIP industry. Indeed, one of the parties to the test doesn't exist any more (Sunrocket) and the future prospects of a second (Vonage) are about as bright as Britney Spears'.
The second prism through which to view the results is that of what is being tested. While call quality certainly is the major single element of any measure of overall satisfaction, the coming generation of products will position VoIP as an element of advanced services. The appeal of these applications will somewhat reduce the laser focus on quality. Put more simply: There are a lot of things people will get from VoIP that aren't available from traditional phone services, and this will make them willing to accept what they consider to be slightly inferior voice services.
All that being said, the results of the study suggest that packet cable -- the study's designation for VoIP offered by the cable industry -- and non-cable Internet telephone services still are inferior to traditional phone service, but are "highly competitive."
It's funny how different people can have decidedly different takes on the same issue. A blogger at Network Observations quotes Ravjeev Kutty, Keynote's product manager, in his statement that VoIP has improved. However, bMighty blogger Paul Korzeniowski points out that call completion for VoIP is 96.9 percent, which lags the traditional phone companies' 99.9999 percent. He also says that VoIP has a caller satisfaction of 3.5 in the survey, compared to 4.0 for the traditionalists. Says Korzeniowski:
The bottom line is: call quality remains a barrier that VoIP providers need to overcome before medium and small businesses adopt the technology.
At the end of the day, the small and medium-sized business (SMB) sector is the big potential market that is still on the table for VoIP service providers. Enterprises generally have their VoIP road maps set, and they also have the money to use services that don't send the traffic over the messy public Internet.
SMBs still are more of a wild card. SMBs -- whether rolling out services themselves or calling in experts -- need to keep their eyes on many issues. VoIP-News says SMBs should make sure they have enough and the "right kind" of bandwidth, don't overextend the local-area network (LAN) and use business-grade equipment. The piece advises SMBs to engage and strongly question the provider, find out who is selling capacity to that provider, and become familiar with how it runs tests and troubleshoots.
Finally, David the Geek drills down on the issue of bandwidth that is mentioned in the VoIP News piece. Put simply, there are many ways to make connections. While little in the story is specific to VoIP, it is important to remember that most problems are due to jitter, latency and other connectivity issues. The bottom line is that voice packets need to get where they are going quickly and in a consistent manner, and the story is a good primer on the differences between ways to get that done.
The business and technical cases are coalescing. On one hand, independent VoIP providers are disappearing. Many will be bought by cable operators and incumbent phone companies. On the surface, this is an opportunity to create more robust networks. SMBs must watch carefully, however, to make sure that the investments to do this really are made.