Skype failure shows reach of web communications

For almost two days, millions of customers around the world who depend on the popular online phone service Skype were stymied as they tried to make or receive calls or send instant messages.

Although many were angry, analysts say the outage — even as it illustrates the limits of internet-based communication — is unlikely to turn customers off or substantially revive demand for traditional land lines.

”The attention paid to these outages shows that these technologies have been accepted,” said Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, which provides crisis guidance for companies. ”As such, this outage will no more drive potential users away than a telephone outage in 1955 would have driven people back to using carrier pigeons.”

The nearly 48-hour outage, which started last Thursday, initially sparked fears that the communications software might have been disabled by hackers. But Skype, part of online auction giant eBay, later said it was the result of a software bug, exacerbated by a massive restart among users who had downloaded a routine Windows patch from Microsoft.

Skype has a loyal and international following, with about 220-million total users. VoIP, or voice-over-internet protocol, has proved accessible for everyone from stay-at-home parents or journalists to executives seeking to trim costs for long-distance phone calls.

Users get a phone number that can be dialled from cellphones or land lines, can arrange for calls to be forwarded to a cellphone and have an answering service. Outgoing calls cost less than those made on a traditional phone line.

In Germany, for example, calls to non-Skype users are 0.02 euro cents a minute while calls to German cellphones are 0.23 euro cents a minute. The same call on Deutsche Telekom’s land line can be as high as €0,05.

Error handling

For some users, however, the fact that it took more than a day for Skype to dispel speculation about a cyber-attack was intolerable.

”I don’t think the outage itself was a problem,” said Stefan Topfer, chief executive and chairperson of WinWeb, a London-based provider of software for small businesses that includes Skype in its bundles. ”I think the way it was handled was a problem.”

He said that several emails he sent to the company during the outage were never replied to and that his own customers had asked him whether it was safe to use the product. Still, Topfer said he continues to use the service and will keep recommending it to clients.

”We very often make too much of these individual failures,” he said. ”My firm believes today that Skype’s network is more resilient than it was last week.”

About 6,5-million consumer VoIP lines were in place in Europe at the beginning of 2006 — a figure that research firm TeleGeography expects to rise to nearly 30-million by the end of this year.

Among the countries where the technology has proven most popular are France, The Netherlands and Norway, where TeleGeography expects it to reach between 30% and 40% of telephone users by the end of the year.

In the United States, the number of digital phone subscribers is estimated at slightly more than 14-million and growing — despite the troubles of marquee names such as Vonage Holdings and the abrupt closure this month of SunRocket, which left more than 200 000 customers scrambling for alternate service.

Vonage suffered a legal setback this year when it lost a patent-infringement case to Verizon Communications and a judge issued an injunction barring it from signing up new customers, but it was stayed while an appeals court considers it.

Regulation

So far, internet phone carriers have not been regulated as tightly as traditional competitors. The US Federal Communications Commission said on Tuesday that VoIP carriers are not subject to the same rules on discontinued service that apply to traditional suppliers.

”The lesson in these outages is that the marketplace expects the same level of responsibility and accountability that it demands from a public utility,” Levick said.

Until there is that same level of security, not all VoIP users are rushing to rip out their land lines.

Michelle Kragalott, a stay-at-home mom in northern Virginia, had used Vonage but cancelled the service because of quality concerns and signed on with Comcast’s digital phone service about three months ago.

While she is happy with that, ”we have considered not even having a land line; however, we opted against that”, she said. ”A friend of mine doesn’t have a landline and wasn’t able to call her cell phone with it.”

In Marburg, Germany, Pastor Andy Goodacre has gone VoIP for 18 months now, using a service from SipGate, with Skype as a back-up, and a cellphone just in case.

”We use VoIP the whole time, placing all our calls over broadband,” he explained, saying he has a landline only because it is a requirement of his provider to get DSL service. ”But we never make any calls or even use that number.” — Sapa-AP

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