Over the past week, with Canadians increasingly working from home and self isolating, we have seen unprecedented usage of voice networks in Canada.  As reported by the Globe and Mail customers are seeing an increase in dropped calls, busy signals, and overall network congestion.

The source of this congestion is obvious - people are calling into more conference calls, making more calls to loved ones, calling for customer service, and in general just making more calls now that in person meetings and interactions are not possible.  

Over the past few days I've been thinking about this problem and have come up with what I believe is a solid three step plan with short, medium, and long term actions to address these challenges.  My hope is that like minded telecommunications professionals read my plan and start working on implementing some or all of my suggestions as soon as possible.  With the nation in crisis the time for action is now.

Short Term - Offload Conferencing Traffic to IP

One of the largest increases in the past week has been calls into conferencing calling services from companies such as Zoom, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco.  The first thing we can all do is ask end-users to use internet-based options to join conference calls, but that obviously isn’t an option for all users – some people need to connect using a traditional phone call.  What we as an industry need to do is to call upon these conference calling services to provide SIP URIs for accessing their dial in numbers.  With this in place, providers could route calls to the conference dial-in numbers directly to the conferencing service, thereby eliminating usage on the PSTN.  To the end-user the experience doesn't change - they continue to dial a local access number, its just routed more optimally between the telecomm provider and the conferencing provider.  A change like this is something that could be done relatively quickly by these providers and would provide immediate relief to networks struggling to deal with the increased load that conferencing calling places on the network.

Medium Term - Voice Peering

As an industry, it's time we start to move away from traditional telecom models and start embracing some of what makes the internet work - easy network interconnection.  To this end, we need to embrace the idea of directly peering with each other to pass voice traffic, the way we do for IP traffic through exchanges such as ToRIX.  For the past few years I’ve been working on VoicePeering.ca, which is a project I started to assist, evangelize, and implement direct Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) based IP peering between Canadian telecommunications service providers (TSPs).  The goal is to create the first settlement free, carrier neutral, voice over IP (VoIP) peering exchange in Canada, similar to Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in the internet realm. The project has built its first proof of concept (PoC) exchange point in Toronto and now seems like the perfect time to get people interested in supporting the project again.  I urge anyone interested in working on this project or just learning more about the idea to contact me.

Long Term - Mandated IP Interconnection

Voice networks in Canada, for the most part, are IP based today.  At the carrier level, every carrier I've worked with in the past 20 years now uses voice over IP for all network backhaul.   At the network edge there are still some customers being delivered copper based services but those are now routinely delivered as IP and then converted through an adaptor when they reach the end customer.

The only place in these networks that is not IP based is the point at which these networks must interconnect with incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) like Bell and Telus.  These interconnection points are still based upon copper interconnection and as a result, are very hard to quickly scale when traffic spikes as augmenting them requires physical wires to be run, interface cards to be installed, etc.  

What we need in Canada to have a voice network that is able to adapt and scale to meet challenges like we experienced this week is mandated IP interconnection between ILECs and competitive service providers (CLECs).  As an industry, we need to call upon the CRTC to revisit decision 2012-24 and finally mandate IP Interconnection between Canadian carriers.  In decision 2012-24 the CRTC didn't mandate IP Interconnection, rather it decided that "Where a carrier is providing IP voice network interconnection to an affiliate, a division of its operations, or an unrelated service provider, the carrier must provide similar arrangements with other carriers."  This clause was meant to ensure that when IP Interconnection between carriers was implemented, it was implemented fairly and equally - a noble position for the CRTC take.  In my opinion, the main problem with this directive is because the ILECs in Canada do not want to make it easier for CLECs to connect to them they have purposely delayed doing any form of IP Interconnection, and without any mandate from the CRTC to IP interconnect they will continue to resist this as long as possible.

Final Thoughts

We as an industry need to work together in times of crisis to solve challenges and deliver services to customers the best we can.  The current challenges being faced by the COVID-19 crisis are not going away anytime soon and it is incumbent upon us as an industry to work together to solve these capacity problems and keep the Canadian voice network running through these challenging times.