Image via Wikipedia
With all this talk last week of Google Voice and its blocking by the laughing gnomes at the UAE's Telecoms Regulatory Authority (TRA), I was reminded last night of quite how big is the heffalump in the Internet telephony room as we chatted happily over a video link to Ireland.
Both Microsoft Messenger and Google Chat support voice and video calling - both effectively forms of the dreaded VoIP that the TRA's gangs of Amish are so keen to protect us from. The video stuff isn't bad quality really, although you'd expect a great deal better with a 1 Meg DSL connection (cripes, we used to do video over a 128kbps ISDN link!) - particularly one that's quite as expensive as Etisalat's.
Back in the day, the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai used to be decorated with futuristic pictures of video telephones from Fujitsu, although I can never remember seeing one in reality (despite my former life as a telecoms journalist) - video calling never really seemed to take off. It was one of the applications that vendors used to waffle on about when they were selling the impossibly huge bandwidth of ISDN - in fact, it was also one of the applications that vendors waffled about when they were trying to sell us the impossibly huge bandwidth of 3G. There you go - if you've got way too much bandwidth, talk up the video angle!
Video calling got sort of tagged into messenger applications, but it's proving to be more and more popular - to the point now where Microsoft's Messenger actually looks for a cam when you're chatting and lets you know that the person you're talking to has a cam and offers to hook you up. It costs nothing, it's fun and it's usable - three critical factors in the fast adoption of a technology.
Messenger ships by default with pretty much every single computer out there and Google Chat is, of course, tied in quite nicely to Gmail. You start trying to block these babies, you're going to do even more damage to the technological capabilities and competitiveness of the nation - and there's already enough damage being done to the adoption, uptake and usage of a number of technologies and networks by the existing blocking policies. And just you wait until Google starts to tie this stuff into Earth, Translate et al.
Where Google Voice is interesting is that it supports PC to phone and vice versa, effectively turning Google into a telco, like Skype but with infinitely more reach. There's no reason why video calling over that connection shouldn't turn into an everyday occurence. There's also every reason to suppose that the world isn't going to leave this space to Google to play in alone - we are going to see more and more applications and services that offer this type of functionality and that integrate it into other functionalities.
This is an inflection point in technology, a tectonic shift. Continuing to protect moribund telcos working on circuit switched revenue models will not address the core problem - that they are being rendered increasingly uncompetitive by advances in technology that they are not encompassing - and that in today's networked world, an uncompetitive telecomms sector will increasingly create an uncompetitive nation.
Blocking VoIP services is short-term protectionism - other telcos in the region and wider world (for instance, take a look at the region's most competitive telco market, Jordan) have been able to transition to leaner, meaner entities and compete in a level playing field by leveraging VoIP technologies in their own operations - the consequent benefit to the consumer and, indeed, the economy is substantial.
It won't be long now before a voice call has no more value than an email. Sooner, rather than later, we are going to have to accept the fact that the UAE's telecoms sector, in its current model, is growing increasingly uncompetitive and unsustainable in the face of the advances taking place in the world around us.