The convergence of voice and data communications, in which all communication becomes an indistinguishable stream of bits and voice no longer needs a dedicated network, has finally achieved what years of half-hearted legislative tinkering could not: create the promise of a genuine, full-service alternative to Telkom. This is according to Tony van Marken executive chairman of Vox Telecom.
Legally, there is still no way for any upstart South African company to become a telecommunications operator. Anybody who wants to start a telephone network faces an insurmountable wall of obstructive legislation, not to mention Telkom’s legal department.
Thanks to the regulatory window that opened up when voice over IP (VOIP) was legalised, it’s now possible to offer full-spectrum telecommunications services based entirely on alternative networks.
For consumers as well as for businesses, convergence brings huge advantages. At the most fundamental physical level, it’s no longer necessary to maintain separate telephone and data networks. Instead of waiting for Telkom to come and install the phone lines, you can call a private sector business than can provide everything from phone numbers through least-cost routing services to web hosting and virtual private networks.
Then there are the benefits of only having one supplier to deal with – including, ideally, only one help desk and one set of people to shout at when things go wrong.
Once you’re freed of physical networks, the possibilities are endless. We’re looking forward to the day everyone has a single telephone number which you can use to reach them anytime, anywhere, regardless of what particular handset they happen to be closest to. Moving to Knysna, or even Brazil, all the while keeping your Johannesburg phone number, will come to seem commonplace.
This is more than just hype. The fact that VOIP has been slow to take off in South Africa can make it tempting to write convergence off as over-hyped, but that would be a mistake.
Networks tend to grow exponentially, and humans are not good at exponential thinking: we tend to overestimate the short term and drastically underestimate the long term. So if the impact of convergence is happening more slowly than you thought it would, rest assured that in five year’s time things will have changed faster than you could ever imagine.