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UC Interop and Regulation

June 27, 2012

My last post on the topic of interoperability explored why unified communications (UC) vendors, with their proprietary interests in mind, cannot be expected to create a ‘level playing field’ federation exchange.  However, that raised the question of how we are able to make telephone calls between competing networks and from one competing vendor’s handset to another.  Clearly there are proprietary vendor interests at play in the telephony environment.  Yet we have inter-vendor interoperability that addresses both the public interest as well as the commercial requirement for a vibrant business/industry that is probably worth more than $1Tr annually.  What is so different between traditional, as well as mobile, telephony and UC?

The answer turns out to be regulation: telephony is one of the most regulated industries world-wide, purely because of public and strategic national interests, and interoperability is a key part of that regulation.  But since UC is, in part, telephony carried over another medium, should those regulations not also carry over to the UC environment?  Once again, I turned to my favorite search engine and I had the answer in 0.27 seconds.

The first thing that turned up was a 2008 paper by a Penn State professor, Richard Taylor, called “REGULATORY IMPLICATIONS OF ‘UNIFIED COMMUNICATIONS’:WILL MICROSOFT BE THE WORLD’S BIGGEST PHONE COMPANY?”  In summary, this document describes the evolution of internet communications from hobbyist VoIP in the 1990s, through to a phase where voice and other communications modalities become features of every internet site (a vision that is now being realized).  During that transition, the US government declined, at every opportunity, to extend telephony regulations to internet communications or to create new regulations.  The main reasons were that it was too difficult from a technical, jurisdictional or definitional standpoint to do so, and that they didn’t want to stifle innovation.  Skype was called out as a particular example since it is a peer2peer technology (i.e. no central infrastructure) and is based in Luxembourg (therefore outside the the regulatory jurisdiction of the US and 199 other governments).  Clearly, the guys in Redmond saw this paper and reached for their check books…..

A White House policy paper from April 2009 (Obama administration): “The Economic and Security Costs of Obsolescent Computer Laws” reversed a late Bush administration interpretation that enterprises operating UC systems became, by implication, a “communications common carrier” (and therefore subject to FCC regulations).  The paper acknowledged the affect that UC had on pressing personal and national security concerns.  However, it also expressed concern that regulation, or the impending threat of regulation, was stifling the innovation in and deployment of UC “[d]espite the enormous economic and competitive potential of UC technologies…”.

So where does that leave us with regard to inter-vendor interop?  My last post referenced an economics based point of view that interoperability will not be achieved in an unregulated free market.  Since regulation of UC appears to have undesirable consequences then, unfortunately, the “interop baby” gets thrown out with the regulatory bathwater.  So if the innovation and deployment of UC is paramount, and yet the UC vendors themselves are unable to create a federation exchange for the same reasons that they are unable to facilitate direct interop, then there remains only one option: NextPlane!

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