Texas Instruments: 10 years of Packet Voice, 150 million VoIP ports

It’s hard to believe that IP voice technology has been around for 10 years. Yet it has. And sitting at the forefront of IP voice evolution over that time has been Texas Instruments.

Texas Instruments (TI) recently announced that it has shipped over 150 million VoIP ports. IDC reports that TI holds the top spot in terms of market share (by revenue) for its Digital Signal Processor (DSP) based VoIP solutions.

TI began its march to VoIP in the early 90s, before the term VoIP had been coined, and long before broadband connections were available to most. In the beginning it was referred to as ‘packetized’ voice and was aimed at delivery over frame relay, ATM, and IP.

“The thing that is consistent throughout, is that our core vision 10 years ago was that packetized voice would be everywhere, and now we’re starting to see that in the VoIP sense,” Tom Flanagan director of technical strategy, DSP systems group, at TI told VoIPplanet.com. “We’ve revised that vision a little bit by saying is that we’re trying to drive VoIP to basically everywhere that there is an IP connection.”

Tipping point
The early days of IP voice at TI were 100 percent enterprise focused. “The enterprise was all about the economics of using leased line facilities to drop your voice bill,” Flanagan said.

Consumer or PC-to-PC VoIP was around in a number of forms 10 years ago, though it did not have a broadband network to leverage or the power of a modern PC platform to use.

“The PC platform getting up to gigahertz plus and having the ability to run a real time streaming application has been a tipping point that has allowed consumer awareness to build,” Flanagan noted.

A form of Moore’s Law also applies to the evolution of VoIP technologies. Flanagan explained that in the early days they could put two channels of voice on a state-of-the-art processor. “We had defined a voice channel as being a really robust channel. It had echo cancellation; it had built-in facilities to deal with jitter and packet loss,” Flanagan said. “We had done that 10 years ago and did it in the embedded space.”

Competition between Telogy (which TI acquired in 1999) and AudioCodes—both of which produced voice solutions for the same TI DSP chip—helped to propel the market forward according to Flanagan.

“This competition was driving the market forward pretty quickly and the dynamic that was changing was price,” Flanagan said. “We were going from a T1’s worth of voice costing roughly $20,000 in hardware in those days. The metric was, say, $1,000 a channel, and look at where we are today.”

“We’ve gone from struggling to get from 2 to 4 and now we have a single chip that will do a few hundred channels of voice for high density applications.”

VoIP challenges
“The biggest challenge overall is jointing the islands of connectivity that we have today,” Flanagan commented. “It doesn’t work seamlessly today.”

Flanagan went on to explain that if you’re a Vonage user and you want to call another Vonage user using all IP you can do that. If you want to call people on the PSTN, you can do that (likewise with Skype). But if you want to call a Skype user and you’re a Vonage user or an AT&T user or GoogleTalk you can’t do that.

“The only way we can achieve that today is to go in and out of PSTN gateways which is doubling and tripling the compression events which has an impact on quality,” Flanagan stated.

What’s needed, in Flanagan’s view, is something analogous to roaming agreements in the way different VoIP players will interoperate. The issue is more one of business than technology, in his opinion.

When calls are kept entirely IP there will be some added benefits for users, including better call quality.

“We are also now in a position to break away from a 100 year old legacy network that has really limited the audio fidelity that we can deal with,” Flanagan said. “To the point that now we’re able to use wideband technology with voice.”

Wideband technology offers the promise of “much better” audio quality according to Flanagan and a better overall user experience.

The next 10 years
Over the coming decade, Flanagan expects to see more consumer products IP voice enabled. Not as a replacement for the telephone as we know it, but rather as part of a solution, similar to the way that some cutting-edge gaming systems today use VoIP to let gamers communicate during play.

“The grand vision of IP enabled voice being nearly everywhere there’s an IP connection—we will be much closer to realizing that,” Flanagan said. “I don’t think that changes.”

“Our key vision holds; we’ll just see more execution of it in the next 10 years.”

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