Telco analyst firm Telsyte estimates there are as many as 200,000 consumers in Australia using Voice over IP (VoIP) technologies from vendors like Skype, iiNet, engin, Laurel Stream and Freshtel.
It's difficult to find out exact numbers, but there are also tens of thousands of people at corporates hooked up to VoIP systems. For example, a deployment of 4,500 VoIP handsets was recently announced at Deakin University.
However, the level of interconnection between the networks these end users are on is poor.
For example, customers of major consumer players engin and iiNet who call friends using other VoIP providers typically find their calls traversing the public switched telephone network (PSTN) at some point.
This is despite the fact that all the vendors involved use networks based on the Internet Protocol (IP) to connect calls.
A similar situation occurs in the corporate world, where even if company A and B both have VoIP systems, calls between the two are likely to need to go back onto the PSTN somewhere in the middle.
This situation where pure IP traffic has to be converted to traverse the PSTN and back again doesn't make technical sense and is costly to boot. That's why it needs to be changed, and peering -- where network carriers exchange data freely between each other -- is the likely solution.
Peering in the data carriage world has been taking place in Australia for some time, but is only just starting to gain traction in the land of VoIP. For example, carriers like Unwired, Internode and Pacific Internet connect their networks together in datacentre specialist Equinix's Sydney facility to avoid the cost of pushing more traffic onto Internet backbones owned by large carriers like Optus and Telstra.
According to Equinix's local managing director Doug Oates, the company is looking into VoIP peering in the United States. And some moves may be in the pipeline locally, according to one local telco.
"VoIP peering is one of the product extensions that I am looking at -- not our highest priority but something we will trial next year," iiNet's chief technology officer Greg Bader told your writer this week.
engin too, is looking into peering, according to the company's chief executive Ilkka Tales, who said recently he was investigating several partnerships.
However the presence of dodgy VoIP operators, or "cowboys" in the industry could be slowing down the process.
"I receive a number of approaches each week (domestic and internation providers)," said iiNet's Bader. "As you can imagine these parties range from significant players to small 'opportunistic' start-ups."
"Given that we have spent considerable time and money in developing a quality solution (compliance, Quality of Service etc), we need to choose our partners carefully," he added.
The rigid criteria Bader uses to pick peering partners echoes concerns voiced by his colleagues at other telcos during last week's annual VoIP forum held by regulatory assistant the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF).
While the forum agreed several VoIP "cowboy" companies who didn't play by the normal telco rules had recently been reined in or had "ridden off into the sunset" (exited the market), there was still concern about bad behaviour.
For example, Telsyte managing director Shara Evans said a third of all consumer VoIP providers were not meeting their obligations under the nations' telecommunications legislation.
In this context, it's unlikely VoIP peering will really take off (other than a few isolated agreements) until the shifting VoIP landscape becomes significantly more mature than it is today. If you've invested a lot of money in your VoIP product it's wise to pick your neighbours carefully after all.
What do you think about VoIP peering -- should providers work together or keep to themselves? Send your thoughts to email@example.com.