Verizon does agree with Jeff Pulver – but neither realizes it

Jeff Pulver of FreeWorldDialup and and the VON Coalition got into it a bit with Brian Whitton of Verizon Labs at IPTComm 07 last week. Pulver argues that VoIP systems should be open, and new ideas should be tried. Brian Whitton argued that "business realities" were what caused Verizon to do the things it does -- like deploy FTTX using Voice over ATM at first. Both of them are probably right, though there was definitely antagonism. Verizon comes across as the enemy of VoIP for their lawsuit against Vonage. Pulver really sounds like a naive 1997 dot-com bubblemaker, except that he's fully self aware that his ideas don't make economic sense up front.

It strikes me that Whitton has it tougher than Pulver. I've worked at some larger service providers helping them make VoIP work; I'm a system integrator. Telcos have it tough because they have tons of requirements:

  • The system has to work right out of the gate
  • They can never turn it off for maintenance
  • They can't get bored and cancel it
  • They have to account for (be able to bill) everything
  • They want full redundancy (at least two of everything)
  • All the pieces have to be fully tested so they know all of the features work
  • They have to be able to stand behind all of the pieces used; e.g., their customers can't just "try" a new SIP phone
  • It has to satisfy the tastes, styles, and preferences of their engineers
  • It usually has to work over a significant/large market area; they usually just don't try something in part of one city
  • It's supposed to be delivered on a predictable timeline
  • It has to meet regulatory standards; 911 of course, but also any tariffs in place
  • It's supposed to follow all the known rules. (As one friend I had who worked for BellSouth's labs said: people in the telephone companies advance not by how creative or innovative they are, but by how closely they follow the written rules.)
  • Everybody has to be trained on everything they're ever supposed to touch; e.g., the sales guys all have to understand it, so it's best if it acts just like ordinary telephone service
  • It has to support any features that might be imagined to be needed someday
  • And anything else they dream up as "problems" along the way, such as security protections against attacks not shown to be actually feasible

But the two most damning features of the large telcos are these:

  • They have plenty of money to do it.
  • They have plenty of time to design it.

Jeff Pulver talked about "forget about ARPU and EBIDAS for a year or 18 months"; he was trying to say: not everything cool can be expected to be self-sustaining immediately. Some things actually require an extensive investment. And he was aiming the jab at Whitton and Verizon. But in reality, organizations like Verizon Labs spend far more than 12-18 months playing with their systems, and they know it'll take a long time to recoup their investment. The Telcos do ignore ARPU and EBIDAS while they're building and designing.

My company has customers just like Verizon; or, more precisely, exactly like Verizon. And I've seen enough to know that practically-unlimited-time and practically-unlimited-money can sink good and creative ideas. The ideas and good intentions get all bogged down in all of the Bellhead traditional practices, and they can afford to do it. They've got loads of money and time! They don't have to re-think the Bellhead ways; they don't have to say, "that's not perfectly redundant, but if it fails it won't actually affect service"; they don't have to tell the engineers, "look, you're right, we really should do it like that, but let's just get this thing to market so we can test it, then we can decide what's most important next".

If telephone companies would follow one piece of Jeff's advice and actually limit their product-rollout time to no more than 12 months, they'd have a much easier time of things. They'd be able to focus on the really important pieces.