VON Canada - Final Thoughts

Gave myself a day to reflect on VON Canada, and on the whole, I'd have to say it was a success. For those who attended the inaugural VON Canada last year, I'm sure you'd agree it was improved on many fronts. The venue was more appropriate, the program was stronger, the exhibitor roster was healthy, the press coverage was better, and the attendance level was higher. While there was no hockey to distract our attention, the LinuxWorld/NetworkWorld conference ran parallel to the show in the same venue. It's hard to say how much cross-pollination took place, but there was a lot of IP happening in that venue this week.

There was a good variety of topics covered in the sessions, and much of it was familiar to VON regulars. So, while there wasn't much in the way of bleeding edge content or major announcements, there was plenty there for the audience, many of whom I suspect are new to VON.

As the show builds some history in Canada, I would hope - and expect -to see next year's show push the envelope a bit further. Of course, one must keep in mind that Canada is a good year behind the US in this market, so the strong buzz from Spring VON just passed is closer to what I would expect to see here in Canada in 2006.

With that said, I'd have to single out Ibrahim Gedeon's keynote as bringing a refreshing dose of candor to the realities faced by carriers as they migrate from circuit to packet. As the CTO of TELUS, he's been living nextgen for a long time, and provided some hard-nosed insight that you're not likely to hear from his RBOC peers.

As much as softswitches and gateways drive most of the nextgen spending by carriers, he's really moved on from this, saying that gateways are a commodity now, and he doesn't talk much about the switches any more. Of course, one could argue that not all gateways are commodities, but that's probably true for much of what's out there now. For gateways to evolve and maintain relevance as carriers move closer to being all IP, they will have to adopt more intelligence and function more as value-added edge devices. Essentially, they will need to support applications, as that will become the real driver for carriers with IP. That's really another topic, but there are some vendors squarely on that path today.

Ibrahim also put some context around SIP, which seems to be driving so much of IP these days. He feels SIP is great for what it does, but "it doesn't solve all my problems". Other protocols will inevitably emerge to fill these holes. Same for IMS - it's just too early to tell how definitive a solution this really will be.

The underlying message was his tacit acknowledgement that IP seems to be a perennial work in progress for carriers, which makes his job endlessly challenging. It would be easy to yearn for the relative stability of TDM, where the technologies had essentially been perfected, and you were familiar with the boundaries. With IP, he knows that new technologies will keep emerging, adding more complexity, and introducing new vendors that he'll have to evaluate and integrate into his ecosystem. I sure hope the vendors are listening!

Finally, I'd be remiss without commenting on the regulatory climate, which is so topical right now in Canada. In the Town Hall Meeting, Bell Canada's Lawson Hunter presented a strong case as to why the CRTC should maintain a consistent set of regulations for all operators in the VoIP market. In his prepared remarks, Lawson addressed two market myths which support the cableco view of VoIP, but also speak to the broader market.

First is the notion that voice should be treated differently than other applications that ride over the Internet. Why should VoIP be treated the same as landline telephony, while all other Internet applications such as email, IM, music or video are unregulated? The medium is really the message here, and it seems inconsistent to treat voice differently. I liked his analogy of a truck as a metaphor for the Internet. A truck is still a truck whether it carries logs or lawn mowers. Same for the Internet whether it's carrying data or voice.

His second contention is market power. All VoIP providers are concerned that the Canadian incumbents hold all the market power, and will extend this control to the VoIP market. Lawson argues that since VoIP is so new here, everyone is basically starting from zero, and there is no guarantee that the ILEC's market power will translate into market dominance for VoIP. That of course remains to be proven.

If one accepts his view that our incumbents do not hold market power in residential VoIP - which so far is true - then the regulators should follow precedent. They did not regulate incumbents differently from competing operators in other areas - long distance, wireless and Internet access - so why should it be any different for VoIP?

Whether you view Bell as the big bad bully trying to coerce the CRTC to favor their position - or as the progressive carrier who echoes some valid concerns for all ILECs, Lawson articulated some strong views that the audience needed to hear. He also provided broader context by outlining how his position of open competition is consistent with almost all other countries (Singapore excepted), and that this climate has supported healthy growth and abundant choice for consumers.

The Canadian residential VoIP market has been holding its breath for too long, and Lawson's implicit message is that the CRTC needs to take a wider view of VoIP and what it means for Canada's future. The good news is that we now have a firm timeline, as their decision will be announced no later that May 12. I'm certain that an open market is the right way to go, but am less certain the CRTC will see it that way.