Bell on VoIP

Boris is referencing Ed Bilodeau in a discussion of a new ad campaign in which Bell is trying to convince consumers that Videotron’s new VoIP (Voice over IP) telephone service is unreliable. Some folks are attacking Bell, calling it a FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) smear.

Boris points out what he perceives as an irony — that Bell has been installing fibre optic cables and selling VoIP services to corporations for years. However, the issue isn’t what they’ve sold to corporations or how much fibre optic is installed. For one thing, corporate VoIP goes through really big and reliable corporate servers, not the crappy cable TV line that your landlord installed illegally 20 years ago.

More specifically, when one speaks of VoIP, one generally means that either the originating or terminating phone (or both) is an IP-based unit that sends and receives its signals through an IP server instead of a traditional voice switch. For many complicated reasons, this isn’t the same as when somewhere along the way, a traditional call gets carried over an IP line — a transparent technological leap that has been happening for years and does not qualify as “VoIP.”

When your phone is IP from the start, and uses a cable modem and TV line as it’s gateway, then reliability will go down. Videotron, for example, craps out all the time. Anyone who has every had to reboot their Videotron modem to get their Web access back might want to think about that. They might also think about the fact that — unlike regular phones — VoIP phones won’t work when there is a power failure, although the newer VoIP modems have backup batteries that can last up to 20 hours. That’s also a moot question if you have a mobile phone, since you can use that if the power goes out — assuming your battery is charged and you’re not concerned about missing calls from people who don’t have your mobile number.

In other words, the issue of reliability comes from getting the call into and out of your house — not what happens once it’s out there in the system.

The traditional phone companies have, for years, prided themselves on what they call “five-9” reliability. That means the phone lines work 99.999% of the time. The big telecoms have used this five-9 argument against VoIP and other IP-based voice technologies for years — at least they did in the 1990s, when you couldn’t get five-9 reliability from corporate VoIP systems. So it is not something new. What is new is that they’re now bringing that message to consumers.

That said, Bell is absolutely correct that consumer VoIP is less reliable. Factoring in those modems, cable lines, and power outages, there’s no way they can hit five-9 at this point. There remain, however, two unanswered questions:

(1) Exactly how much less reliable is VoIP? Is consumer VoIP at three-9 (99.9%)? Is it five-8 (88.888%)? Is it 75%? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s probably around 99%.

(2) Do consumers really need five-9 reliability? Is that as strong a selling point as Bell thinks it is? Are consumers willing to give up a percentage point or two of reliability in exchange for lower prices? In most cases, I suspect it’s a resounding yes!

You can criticize Bell for many things (and I have, believe me, I have) but this is just plain old marketing. It’s up to the consumer to decide how much reliability they need and to figure out what they are willing to compromise for a lower price.

10 thoughts on “Bell on VoIP

  1. Point taken Ed… however, what you forget is the “value treshold”. Essentially, the environmental pressure Bell is reacting to here is the reality that many people are willing to sacrifice reliability for next-to-nothing long distance. And the number of people – read: telecom clients – who are willing to make that compromise is growing exponentially every day. Sure cable modems are touchy, but that’s just “for now”. When you have that fiber optic connection – which Bell is keeping from you by the way – that becomes a moot point as well.

    So to answer to your two questions above: (1) Who cares? It works enough to say hi to mom everyday, and (2) No. And as reliability improves, so will the numbers of users.

    VHS? or Beta?
    In the marketplace, “good enough at the right price” rules.


    Wasn’t criticizing them. Was chuckling at the irony (how Bell is sitting on the very technology that can and will blow away their own telephony business), and their predictable behavior as they walk the coals trying to figure out how to transition. :)

  2. Well, the point I was making was that the tricky bit isn’t the fibre optic lines, but the point of entry — the phone itself and the modem.

    Bell is, of course, exaggerating the case, but aren’t we used to that by now. I’m not convinced that Bell is keeping the fibre optic lines from us — they’re not just laying there collecting dust. Not sure what you mean by that.

  3. Apparently they are. They laid fiber all over downtown and the Plateau back in the late 90’s (this I got from Bell employees and technicians). Also, the VoIP corporate services are sold as being more reliable with more features at better costs. Obviously hedging their investments in the technology. ;)

    And again, for the average user, in most cases quality takes back seat to price.

    I’m not clear either at this point what your argument is? The market is moving that way (IP-based telephony). We can futz over details like “crappy cable modems” or we can take a step back, get a better/wider view and watch the whole thing move forward. Like an ice float making it’s way down a river in spring. :)

  4. I suppose my main point was just that Bell’s ad should come as no surprise, and can’t really be criticized for being inaccurate. It is, arguably, overstating the case, but again, when it comes to marketing, that’s normal.

    Videotron, on the other hand, is promoting their service like it’s some kind of panacea. The reality is that whichever one you choose, there is a tradeoff.

    In my case, I virtually never call long distance (in fact, I don’t even call locally) so the VoIP isn’t a big deal for me. In fact, I don’t like the idea that my TV, Internet, and phone would all be reliant on a single connection. (They call it convergence — I call it “all your eggs in one basket.”)

    On the other hand, I like the fact that the VoIP modem (which also doubles as your high-speed Internet modem) has batteries and stays alive during a power outage. Forget the phone, I like the fact that I could stay connected to the Internet (with my iBook) when the power goes off!

  5. Oh… you still haven’t convinced me regarding the fibre optic. I’m convinced the lines have been installed, but who says we’re not using them? If you call me at work (downtown) from your apartment (plateau) the call will likely go over those lines. Similarly, if you call long-distance, or perhaps if you use Sympatico DSL, it will likely use those lines. (Unless there’s something going on that I’m not aware of…)

  6. Blork;

    if you want that “connected to the Internet (with my iBook) when the power goes off!”, just plug your cable modem’s power cord into your UPS!. (Unless you use only laptops, in which case you probably don’t have one.)

    And yea, Bell (among others) has thousands and thousands of kilometres of ‘dark fibre’ – massive transmission capacity that sits unused because the telcos can’t get past their old-fashioned business model.

    For an interesting discussion on where fibre optic networks are going (and a good example of why Bell’s attempts to sit on their dark fibre is a stupid approach) check out the article at

    Most on-target quote:

    It is increasingly accepted that future revenue opportunities for carriers will arise from selling services such as e-commerce, server hosting, applications servers, etc., not from extending or leveraging their infrastructure.

    The Netera fibre optic research network they refer to as extending to Banff actually terminates at The Banff Centre, where I work.


  7. Howdy!

    Apologies for being late to the party, but Philip Greenspun has an interesting post no his experiences with VoIP that you might want to read.

  8. The problem with Bell is that should you have a problem, they feature about the worst, most uncaring, crappola customer service I have ever encountered.

  9. Speaking of Bell crappy costumer service (nothing to do with IP):

    I used to have a free plan for long distance.
    Then I had to pay 4.95$ for it. To get ‘great rates’ to Canada, overseas, etc. just cheaper by the minute.
    i knew I was getting screwed anyway…

    I recenlty checked all that to realized how much and for how long I have beeen screwed.
    I compared with Yak Yak and other cies. Mainly those where you have to dial another number first.

    If you suscribe to a long distance plan (even a one you get for free, usually one) with Bell, you have to pay for network (improvement?) fee (2.95$/month).
    That comes with the plan, but they don’t tell you.
    Say no to the plan and immediatly save 8$+tx…

    And Bell rates, with or without plans, are more expensive than the out-network cies, with no plan at all!

    The calling card that is another way to screw clients. Don’t even think the great long distance plan you pay for work also with the card: it does not!

    Screwing clients is our motto…

    Compare with the other companies:

  10. The weird thing is that I was in a Bell store the other day and there was a VoIP package being sold on the counter.

Comments are closed.