Death of the Dial Tone?

We humans are strange beings, aren’t we? We are fine living without a dial tone on our smart phones, but give us a land line that doesn’t produce that dial tone and we’ll jiggle the hook switch as if there’s something wrong. And there usually is. IP communications work differently than legacy telephony, and we are used to that also. Does this suggest the dial tone, ringing tone and all will soon never be heard again, like the early days of modems trying to sync up over phone lines?

Dial Tone

We all know that nothing is fixed in the communications landscape. It’s constantly changing. Recent hot topics have been the cloud, tablets, SIP trunking, VoLTE, video, and so on; it’s inevitable that other topics will come around as time goes on.

So let’s ask a fundamental question: Does a dial tone still matter? If you still have one foot in the world of legacy telephony, that’s going to sound like heresy, but at the same time, there’s no denying that times are changing. Way back in 2004, Skype really started to shake things up, and communications have never been the same since, as the proverbial ball has been rolling faster and faster. Although VoIP on the desktop has by and large been a phenomenon for the consumer, Skype and programs like it are still regularly used at work. At times this is done to save the organization money, yet many other times it’s done just because it’s easier than the alternative.

Now, VoIP on the desktop is merely a complement to a regular dial tone, not a replacement. Few are the businesses with the courage to jump ship entirely. The standard desk phone isn’t going anywhere any time soon, yet desktop VoIP has had an altogether different impact merely by making the pie bigger than before. With different options, many of them free or low-cost, many of us are more disposed to making calls, yet this particular activity isn’t always using the standard dial tone. Skype-to-Skype calls, for instance, might travel over the PSTN at some time, but they do not use TDM. And that’s not all — so long as there’s a good calling experience, I really don’t think anyone cares if there’s a dial tone or not.

In the interests of fairness, Google Voice and Skype (among others) do offer PSTN connectivity. So if you really want to, you can get a dial tone with these services, to receive and make calls both. At the same time, though, you have to pay for these particular services, and free beats paid pretty much all of the time. So these types of calls generate only a tiny portion of how these services are normally used.

Now, if this was the end of the article, you would be quite correct to deduce that the venerable dial tone still matters quite a bit for business users. After all, there is still a massive base of installed legacy PBXs. Not to mention the fact that there is, believe it or not, still a lot of Centrex being used out there. Even in places where IP PBXs are being used, most of the calls are nevertheless going over physical trunks, and corporate dialing plans are staying rigidly entrenched. At the same time, even though VoIP is a big, disruptive technology, wireless is even larger. The shadow it’s casting over the telecommunications landscape is even bigger and darker. Granted, at this point much of the impact has fallen on consumers, yet with the blast-off of smartphones, tablets and other such devices, it’s inevitable that such usage will swiftly make inroads into the business world, sooner more likely than later. As for right now, though, such usage in the enterprise has set sail into uncharted waters.

True, businesses have tried to manage cell phone usage for years now. In fact, a whole new industry has arisen to address this ugly problem — Telecom Expense Management, or TEM. With regard to dial tone, cell phones are simply another passageway in the mix for voice. At face value, therefore, this just validates the conventional methods of thinking.

That’s certainly reasonable, yet at the same time, its changing fast. Mobile telephony will certainly undergo the same changes as landlines did once 4G and LTE become the new standard. To be sure, that might be some time away, yet when adding Wi-Fi to the mix, the final use case for dial tone is greatly diminished. My thought is that within the next five years, ten at the outside, all voice calls will be fully packetized and sent entirely over IP networks. It won’t matter if they have fixed or mobile endpoints. The only extant need for dial tone will be for backwards compatibility.