Running Voice over the Public Internet

Simon Woodhead

Simon Woodhead

12th July 2022

By Simon Woodhead

Over many years I’ve been intolerant of lies and deceptions when it comes to “networks”. At one end of the scale you have the spivs who lie about the network they don’t have, whether it those who have literally nothing and outright lie, those who claim strung together bits of wet string over somebody else’s network to be award-worthy or those who simply have screwed up priorities – like the US muppets who have a chef in their big city office and sell the vision of a private global network, a network which in truth comprises GRE tunnels over the public Internet. Say what you need to sell seems to be the motto here, and vanity rules.

But I’m also intellectually intolerant, it could be said. There are those who have legitimate networks, but haven’t updated mission critical services in fifteen years, or whose network is so big and complicated, with management in so many hands, that it gets in the way of common sense. You know the sort – you can directly connect but it’ll be by way of a magic box plugging into their MPLS core over which you can run a VPN. That box is expensive so you’re only allowed one. Public Internet is arguably better than that! Then there’s those, or rather them, who get it basically right by allowing direct cabling into their voice network but in exactly one carrier-neutral location, forcing many to not bother and run traffic over the public internet. We saw in 2015 (I think) when Simwood was described on Twitter as the only network left standing, after that particular house of cards came tumbling down.

We’ve raised this over and over and over with the powers that be in various Ofcom consultations, to no avail. For all the boxes that may be ticked on paper for those who bother to try, the pole is massively greased in favour of, if you have any infrastructure at all, just running voice traffic over the Internet. It is easy and nobody will ever know or care apparently. 

The Internet as a transport for critical services isn’t necessarily bad. Yes, it lacks the Quality of Service assurance (QoS) capabilities of say MPLS, but benefits from ubiquity and the QoS argument has diminished in recent years as generally speaking capacity is dramatically over-provisioned and congestion is generally speaking less of an issue. I think you’d be surprised at the amount of communication that takes place over the public Internet – have you ever thought how a mobile provider in Asia exchanges traffic for its roaming customers in Europe for instance? – and we know of entire mobile networks existing entirely in the cloud. Obviously, we also know from our own stats how much VoIP traffic originates on the public Internet too. 

Now, if you’re a retail voice provider who doesn’t provide connectivity, this is somewhat inevitable. Amusingly there are some “networks” who do sell connectivity into their core network but the traffic into their core network from their connectivity customers traverses the public Internet. Yes, seriously. 

But there’s encryption right? Well, if you were to analyse some of the examples I’ve given above and cross-reference them with those who say ‘encryption is pointless’, or simply won’t run to the cost of the encryption licence for the magic box, you’d find massive correlation. However, the reality is that industry-wide virtually nothing gets encrypted, despite the standards for doing so existing for decades. It really is shameful.

In short: if we had a Regulator who wanted to enforce its own long-standing rules, it really would be like shooting fish in a barrel! In the absence of one, caveat emptor prevails but the Telecom Security Regulations (TSRs) provide some hope. Granted, they strike me as a knee-jerk reaction to realising the incumbent’s network was riddled with cheap Chinese gear, and still leave that particular oopsie unpunished. Granted, they fit the anti-SME pro-oligopoly narrative we’ve suspected behind many other face-palm actions. And granted, I’m the last person who wants more rules or to spend so much tax on clipboards! But, they provide a framework for cleaning things up and taking spivs off the street if enforced.

Now, if you have the lies and deception at one end of the scale, and the luddites, protectionism and face palms at the other, what options are there? I would argue there’s 2 in the middle: Simwood Carrier Services and Simwood Partner! 

I know I’m biassed but this is a case of the law catching up with what we’ve always done. We’re the largest operator to do this right, have the scale and smarts to continue doing so, but are small and agile enough and don’t require a cultural sea change or an infrastructure overhaul. I legitimately cannot think of another operator in a comparable place.

We’ve always encouraged our network-operating customers to directly connect with us in multiple carrier neutral sites; no MPLS magic boxes needed. The multi-site angle is critical; handing traffic off in one neutral data centre with compute somewhere else and you not knowing what is in between doesn’t fly. We operate publicly stated Availability Zones and encourage customers to connect to all of them where traffic can be handled locally. We also encourage encryption; it has always been available and is a no-charge option. Where customers ignore this, as our response to the DDoS activity last year shows, we go to massive lengths to ensure that even if you do everything you can to expose your customer’s traffic to the public Internet, it’ll have the most direct possible route to us. We peer openly (almost: there has to be a need!) and don’t use it to play power games, e.g. “you’re not big enough”, “buy a magic box”, “you need to buy our transit”. And our network is big enough, in fact compared to peers it is huge.

Another option we’ve long encouraged is to come on-net. A number of ITSPs co-locate on the Simwood network and thus benefit from everything we do not just in having a direct cross-connect to us, but also to leverage our network to reach their customers’ access networks or cloud providers.

That covers some of the Carrier Services options but the TSRs present another option because, frankly, routing traffic over the public Internet is the least of your coming worries! Whilst we’ve always advocated operators being in control of their infrastructure and building things right, the reality is that the intersection between those who have done so and those who do it right or know what they’re doing is not a big one. I don’t say that to be a dick, although some will have decided that before reading this blog (good – we want the sensible niche), but the TSRs do present opportunity to hold a mirror up and ask if that infrastructure is genuinely adding value or is simply a liability in a post-TSR world. Frankly, if Simwood was much smaller or we didn’t have the awesome team we have, and there was another operator to go to, I’d be at least considering that. One has to ask ‘why’, not just routinely but specifically now as we face the TSRs. Migrating to a fully white-labelled hosted solution with encryption, network competence, apps and billing and all TSR compliance baked in has to be appealing doesn’t it? Simwood Partner is that solution. With that, you get all the benefits of customer ownership, without all the hassle of running a network in an increasingly draconian regulatory regime.

We’ve got a lot more to say on the TSRs, as Pete and Charles will continue in other blogs. This is a seismic shift in our industry and one we want you to be on the right side of. Please do engage with us.

Related posts