From Dial-up to WebRTC: Two Decades of Innovation

Cover Story

From Dial-up to WebRTC: Two Decades of Innovation

By Erik Linask, Group Editorial Director  |  December 08, 2015

Technology is a unique space, in that innovation doesn’t ever stop. In fact, it has only seemed to gain momentum over the course of the past two decades. As each new advance is introduced, the whole tech industry sets to work on how to exploit those developments for the next opportunity. The innovators themselves also seem to be a resilient group, never being satisfied with the latest idea, rather looking ahead to the future and how to build upon that idea.

If you look back to the very late 1990s, communications innovation was in its infancy, at least by today’s standards. The Internet was really starting to take hold, and Swedish company Intertex was busy developing modems for dial-up service, when a significant thing was about to change the communications market permanently. The advent of DSL and cable broadband brought with it perpetual connectivity, and Intertex also began developing broadband modems, but CEO Karl Stahl was already looking well ahead of just being able to connect to surf the web.

First Look at Peer-to-Peer Communications

The obvious use of broadband connectivity would be an eventual replacement of the traditional telephony network, because the quality of interactions could be significantly improved from PSTN voice. At the same time conversation around new protocols like SIP began heating up, which Stahl believed would become a powerful technology that would revolutionize communications.

The combination of those factors eventually resulted in the development of enterprise devices that would enable the sharing of one Internet connection with multiple endpoints behind a full SIP firewall – and the spinoff in 2001 of the company now known as Ingate Systems (News - Alert).

“It had an SBC built in from the beginning in a small ADSL modem, and that’s basically what became the Ingate SIParator product,” explained Stahl. “At that time, we were using Microsoft’s Windows Messenger, which was SIP compatible at that time, and we were able to do conferencing from the beginning, directly over the Internet. It was much after that we came up with the SIP trunking concept and feeding things to the telephone network.”

While SIP would, in fact, become the dominant protocol for IP communications, it’s actually something of a second choice for Stahl. He really thought broadband access would drive massive uptake of direct peer-to-peer communications – with the help of Intertex’s modems with built-in SBC functionality; but the boxes never made it into homes as Stahl had expected. So, instead of SIP being the dominant technology in the home delivering full multimedia between users, we waited for Skype to deliver that several years later.

“Our whole history has been one of innovation,” noted Ingate President Steve Johnson (News - Alert). “We may not have realized the full substance of what SIP could be on a peer-to-peer basis and what Karl foresaw back then, but we certainly are seeing SIP overtaking the whole telephony business. SIP became a turning point in our evolution.”

Since then, Ingate has evolved its line of SIParator SBCs to meet the needs of nearly any size business, along with introducing a virtual SBC to take advantage of the software movement. It has built a large partner ecosystem that includes virtually every IP PBX (News - Alert) provider and ITSP, promoting the adoption of unified communications services. Most recently, it introduced a new licensing model to simplify the purchase process and deliver more capacity and features without creating sticker shock. Johnson calls Ingate the “Swiss Army Knife of E-SBCs” due to its versatility and new simplified model.

A Second Look at P2P: WebRTC

While Ingate’s belief that SIP would drive direct communications between users was slightly off target, and today, almost two decades later, we are still talking across the PSTN, conceptually, Stahl was right – he was just far ahead of his peers.

“It’s funny now, because when we talk about WebRTC and other developments, these are things I thought would happen directly with SIP,” Stahl said. “I thought we would actually get out of being locked into the old telephony service, and there wouldn’t be a need for Skype (News - Alert) or other OTT applications – it would work across everything if it weren’t for the firewall problem we are still dealing with.”

Recall, of course, that Intertex had developed a solution that would have addressed the firewall traversal issue. However, the market was too slow to adopt it, as the carrier community often is. But, in the years that have passed since then, Ingate’s products have been used to connect UC platforms and PBXs to the PSTN by way of SIP trunks, but in doing so helped create islands of connectivity where feature richness eroded as soon as a call hit the PSTN because of the inherent peering structure. One of the benefits of direct IP connectivity is the persistence of feature richness and functionality.

But, innovators are, often, ahead of the markets they serve, and now, Ingate is taking another shot at the concept of direct communications between endpoints that will not only simplify communications, but enhance the quality of experience as well, getting away from the AM radio quality we have grown to accept with the PSTN.

Ingate has created what it calls its WebRTC & SIP PBX Companion, a gateway connecting a SIP trunk to the web. While it seems somewhat counterintuitive, it’s the most effective way to integrate exiting UC platforms into the WebRTC environment. The PBX Companion gateway turns every compatible browser into a UC multimedia endpoint with telepresence quality – including mobile devices – that can become part of the enterprise UC infrastructure. The Companion also includes an integrated TURN server thanks to Ingate’s Q-TURN module, allowing WebRTC media traffic to traverse the most restrictive enterprise firewalls (like an E-SBC does for SIP media).

That said, the idea that communications can go directly over the Internet may finally be coming into its own. Stahl is certain this time it will happen – he was just 15 years ahead of the market the first time around.

Turning Vision into Reality

Ultra Mobile is an MVNO focused on international calling – specifically to serve the 50 million people in the U.S. who are from other countries and have families and friends in their homelands. A little more than two years ago, the company made a strategic change in direction, moving from a calling card model to a SIM card model, and became one of the fastest growing MVNOs in America. As the world has become a mobile-first society, Ultra Mobile had to adapt and sought to develop a service that would allow these same users to make international calls with their mobile devices at an affordable price point.

The challenge, according to Marc Abrams, Director of Communications Apps at Ultra Mobile, was that, even though he and the Ultra Mobile team believed WebRTC was, conceptually, the right technology, it really wasn’t stable enough for mass adoption. While at WebRTC Expo in Atlanta, however, they began to believe it could be done, and narrowed down a list to three vendors with enough promise to trial. Of the three, only one brought a viable product to the table: Ingate.

Ingate’s experience working with SIP was a natural benefit, as Ultra Mobile ran its service on a highly stable SIP network, originating in 70 countries and terminating in more than 200, which it wanted to continue to leverage. Ingate’s WebRTC Companion product seemed to fit the bill with its SBC functionality, Q-TURN module, and the ability to interface with Ultra Mobile’s various SIP trunking and gateway partners around the world.

Now, recognizing there are other providers available selling lower-cost international calling, including Skype, Ultra Mobile makes it easy for users to place and receive calls: There is no Skype In or Skype Out type of sign-up required, or additional costs. And, like other providers, app-to-app or peer-to-peer calling is free since there is not PSTN termination. The service to be launched, using Ingate’s WebRTC & SIP Companions at its core is also smart enough to recognize numbers that are called more than once and recommends both parties use the app for their calling, which will enable all the typical features we’ve all come to expect, like voice, video, messaging, and sharing. Ultra Mobile will even send a link to download the appropriate version of the app.

If both parties have the app and have access to high-speed data, the app will send them P2P because it’s a superior experience. If the called party is without access to high-speed data and needs to use cellular voice or landline, the Ultra Mobile system determines the best way to connect the two parties based on its complex least-cost routing algorithms.

But what really excites Chris Furlong, President and Co-Founder, is that WebRTC allows Ultra Mobile to remain fully agnostic about how users choose to communicate, while allowing it to expand its addressable market. If you have an iPhone (News - Alert) or Android smartphone (using the app) or a PC with a browser, you are a potential user.

“Our goal is to provide a seamless connection between the online world and the traditional phone network,” he explained. “The Ingate solution with WebRTC is just a great complement to what we have been doing for a long, long time on the traditional network.”

Why Ingate’s WebRTC?

One of the questions still surrounding WebRTC is scale. It works very well for 10 users or even a small enterprise, but Ultra Mobile needed to know its service would accommodate a million or even 10 million users. The challenge was finding a vendor that understood both SIP and WebRTC, along with scale.

“That’s what we found at Ingate,” said Abrams. “Not only are they experts at SIP, they are one of the originators of and experts in WebRTC, and fully comprehend the challenges of connecting these two technologies.”

In addition, Ingate’s WebRTC Companion product allows Ultra Mobile to build its own UI and experiences, whereas several other vendors tend to push an end-to-end WebRTC service in a box kind of offer that is much less flexible in terms of personalization. Both Furlong and Abrams fully believe working with the Ingate team to implement Stahl’s vision will put Ultra Mobile into a much better competitive position.

With Ingate’s support, Ultra Mobile is able to create a completely unique experience for its users, which most providers struggle to deliver, including the ability to introduce new features and functionality because they are not tied into a proprietary branded solution. That support is why working with Ingate made sense. Ultra Mobile sought to develop a visionary service using, effectively, an unproven technology. To accomplish that, it required a partner that not only understands the technology, but also the vision and is willing to work together to succeed, rather than doing the minimum.

“I have known Karl for a while; he is smart and he is a visionary, and this solution we have built is really a testament to the work that Karl and his team have put into the project,” said Abrams. “We knew there were some risks due to the maturity level of the technology, which is one of the main reasons we chose Ingate. If you have to go to battle with untested technology you know is not quite ready for prime time, you want someone that understands it and is willing to help you and provide the right resources.”

It may have taken 20 years, with several stops along the way – though they were stops that have enabled countless businesses to compete effectively – but Stahl’s vision is finally becoming reality with the help of some co-visionaries at Ultra Mobile. The question is: What will a serial innovator like Karl Stahl and the Ingate team set their sights on next?

Edited by Stefania Viscusi


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