The history of voice termination mirrors to a large extent the history of global transportation, spreading out across the globe like a web. As people travelled further and faster, so a need arose for them to be able to communicate with greater ease and speed than that allowed by postal services and the telegraph. Where once there were only one or two routes to different places, with passage usually expensive and heavily controlled, now we are confronted by an almost overwhelming plethora of options, with little central regulation and great bargains to be had, if you know the right place to look.
In the early days, telephone communications between countries were expensive, limited and heavily controlled by governments of the time. A prime example of this was the single transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe with the United States at the time. As the United Kingdom was the place where the cable entered the sea, all communications were routed through London, giving the British Government the power to monitor everything that went through it. This proved particularly useful during the second world war when the UK was able to cut off direct communications between German powers and the USA.
It wasn’t until 1956 that the first telephone cable was successfully laid across the Atlantic, allowing voice to voice communication for the first time. TAT1 as it was known, could carry up to 35 calls at the same time. A call cost £9 for three minutes, over £280 today. More and more cables were laid overtime and as the internet grew, copper gave way to fibre optic. These are still being laid today, with the most recent announced being SACS, which will connect Brazil with Angola. However, it’s no longer just national governments making the immense investment in undersea cables.
Rise of the private sector
Since around the turn of the millennium, private companies have begun laying their own cables as well. This was started by telecoms companies such as Vodaphone, but today tech companies including Microsoft and Facebook are investing in their own cable – MAREA is a 6600km cable that connects Virginia to Bilbao. Scheduled to go live in early 2018, it will have a speed of 160 terabits a second, the equivalent of streaming 70 million HD videos at once through a tube the size of a garden hose.
As private companies began to take control of these new networks the cost of call termination continued to be high. Calls had to be routed between any number of providers to reach their destinations, and each would take a cut from the initial operator. Up until the 1970s, international calls still had to be manually connected by switchboard operators. Then the Internet arrived.
With the explosion of choices and options, costs came down and competition went up. New telecommunications companies entered the fray, but it wasn’t until the advent of VoIP that the market really opened up. With Voice Over Internet Protocol, companies wanting to be part of the rapidly growing market didn’t need to invest in expensive hardware or comply with costly legislation, they simply needed a network capable of providing reliable and cheap routing of calls, and the clout to sign agreements with the top tier communications companies that dealt with end users.
During this period, specialists such as IDT established themselves as reliable second tier business providers. As of today, firms are constantly working to stay competitive, further driving down call costs for users. The cheapest call options can change hour by hour or even minute by minute depending on local conditions, meaning that VoIP providers really need to be at the top of their game to thrive.
Early VoIP systems were synonymous with apps like Skype, now owned by Microsoft. Once incredibly popular, it has now been superseded by cheaper alternatives that didn’t require you to use proprietary apps. IP enabled phones in offices the world over started providing both internet and phone line through one device, drastically reducing setup costs for businesses. In the consumer market, services including Facebook and Whatsapp are similarly leveraging the advantages of VoIP.
Controlling the new frontier
More recently, governments have been attempting to protect consumers by trying to bring some sort of regulation to the market. A notable example was the EU’s decision in 2015 to force telecommunications companies to drop roaming charges, meaning that calls between all the European nations should cost the same, whichever country you were calling to or from. As with many things in the internet age, however, governments are often playing catch-up. By the time a law has been defined and put into practice, the technology has often moved on. It seems clear that as we enter a more connected world than ever, VoIP is here to stay.