Opinion

WebRTC: A Business Communications Game-Changer

In this podcast, Christian Stredicke, CEO of Vodia, a cloud phone system company, talks about how Vodia is working to use WebRTC to create new communications environments for PBX users.

Note: This is a transcription of a March 24, 2022 Telecom Reseller podcast with Christian Stredicke, President and CEO of Vodia. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and readability. Vodia thanks Telecom Reseller publisher Doug Green for hosting the podcast.

You’re using WebRTC (“Real Time Communications”) every day,on your laptop and on your smartphone – it’s what makes voice and videoavailable through your browser. In this podcast, Christian Stredicke, CEO ofVodia, a cloud phone system company, talks about how Vodia is working to useWebRTC to create new communications environments for PBX users. WebRTCeliminates the interoperability issues that have long plagued the VoIP industry,and it’s based on HTTP, which means best network protection currentlyavailable, particularly in light of the DDoS attacks during the lastquarter of 2021.

“Over the ten, even twenty years, I cannot imagine anythingreplacing WebRTC,” Christian says. The podcast also discusses the relevance ofdesktop phones and SIP trunks, how the team at Vodia has found a way to routecalls from WebRTC into mailboxes or an IVR, enabling communications betweenbrowsers and servers, between browsers and desktop phones, and between browsersand SIP trunks. “I think we’ve achieved ‘choice of device,’” Christian says,“which offers so many possibilities to businesses. This is something unique inthe industry, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Doug Green, Publisher of Telecom Reseller (DG): Christian,thank you for joining me today.

Christian Stredicke, CEO of Vodia (CS): No problem,thank you.

DG: Well, this is an exciting podcast. We’re going to getcaught up with Vodia, see what’s going on at Vodia, but we’re going to divedeeply into how Vodia is using many of the tools available in thetelecommunications market to deliver a rich set of solution to users that arereally changing the way people work, and operate, and have their businessescommunicate with the outside world. We’re going to be diving into that in justa minute, but first of all, Christian, what is Vodia?

CS: At Vodia we’re making software, phone systems, for businesscommunications, and the apps that make using them easy and effective, and todaymore than that.

DG: We talk about phone systems in the historical context ofhaving some sort of set up that allows people to make phone calls and toreceive phone calls. But let’s focus a little bit on the  ‘more than that.’ What do you mean when yousay there’s more to it than that?

CS:The core is that A can talk to B, but there’s a lot more. At the end of the daywe want to enable companies to interact with customers. This doesn’t mean aspecific person, we want groups to answer calls; when you don’t want to talk toa specific person, you want to talk to a function, this means calls need to berouted to the right person. And we need to have accountability, we need to knowwho worked, for how long, what time, reporting about it...But there’s a lot ofstuff around this data which has tremendous value – it’s kind of a necessityfor a company to have this kind of information. There’s a lot more than justthe basic call.

DG: Early on Vodia saw the benefit of a major technologicalbreakthrough known as WebRTC.

CS:The browser has already killed a lot of applications. In the ‘90s we probablyhad CRM systems writing specifically for operating systems, but over the yearsit’s all changed because of the browser. A lot of business software has beenmade available exclusively in the browser, and real-time communications werekind of lagging behind. WebRTC is a game-changer because it makes voice andvideo available through the browser on practically every platform that runs abrowser. So yes, it’s a total game-changer compared to what we had before. AtVodia we’re trying to use this and essentially translate the technology we’vehad so far into a new environment and make this available to our end users.

DG: WebRTC stands for “Web Real Time Communications,” butwhat does this actually mean?

CS:“Real Time” means that delay is critical, so when two people are talking theroundtrip time for a voice packet is very important for the user experience. Ifyou’re using other technologies, there’s a one or two second delay forconversation. WebRTC makes it so this delay is as short as possible, so theuser experience is really good. This is the main purpose of that API.

DG: WebRTC is probably over a decade old. Why is it sorelevant, and why does it remain relevant?

CS:First of all, browsers are everywhere – anybody who’s logged into a browser canpotentially use WebRTC, and there are more and more applications coming up. Notonly telephone systems, it’s social networks – they have started heavily usingWebRTC, so my kids are talking over WebRTC and they don’t even know it. Theydon’t care how it works, it just works! It’s just like a huge community,there’s a huge amount of users who are in front of the screen, in front of thebrowser, and this just opens up the possibility for people to talk to eachother, and this is something we’ve never seen before – it’s going to have a massiveimpact on the way we communicate. And it’s a great thing that we only have onestandard, right? It’s fantastic that all of the browser manufacturers reallyagree to that standard. If you’re using browser type A and browser type B theyreally work well together, so we don’t have to worry about interoperability,which was always something that haunted us in the VoIP industry, that device Adidn’t really work with device B. But with the browsers, what’s happening nowis, no question it’s going to work. There are no problems like, ‘thismanufacturer doesn’t work with that manufacturer,’ that’s all gone now, that’sthe beauty of it. It’s a really solid standard, and this problem has really,really been solved.

DG: I have to ask – I’m going to channel our younger readersfor a moment – why not just use our smartphones?

CS:At the end of the day every smartphone has a mobile browser that supportsWebRTC. And the way you make apps today is largely that you write the web page,then you publish that page in the form of an app, so the app is, essentially, awebsite running inside the app. There are a lot of apps right now being shippedwith WebRTC inside them. Users have no idea, but they don’t have to carebecause it just works and everybody’s happy. And the developers are happy aswell because they can save a lot of work and a lot of time for developing thatkind of stuff over and over again, they can just use it.

DG: So, with this shift and, essentially, like you said…a lotof people through this pandemic and in other situations have been using WebRTCwithout even knowing they’re using it. One of the impacts is, people aresaying, ‘now it seems like I’m available for work around the clock’ – there’sno delineation between ‘work’ and ‘not-work.’

CS:Technically that’s all possible now, so we can work 24/7. What we’ve seen issurprising (I was surprised), people are using their browser for the PBX, andthe answer is very simple, because they know, when they close that browser tab,they’re offline. Nobody can call them, and this was a very ‘a-ha!’ moment forus, in terms of user acceptance, that total control over when they’re availableand when they’re not. You’re talking about work-life balance, so essentially inthe morning they log in, and then they can receive calls and make calls via thePBX, but in the evening when they close that browser window; it’s 100 percentclear they’re not getting interrupted any more, and this is quite valuable andimportant. This is a must-have if you want to roll out a company today, thatyou must kind of guarantee that people are not getting into this 24/7 mode. Wehave also done this for the apps as well, because if you’re using WebRTC on amobile phone, there’s no simple way of just closing your tab, because that appis running 24/7. That’s why on the server side we said, ‘okay, these are theworking hours,’ and employees only receive calls during working hours – theycan be sure they’re not getting calls at 5 a.m. or on the weekend, at theseinconvenient times, and this is very, very important.

DG: What about VoIP phones? Do they still have relevance?

CS: The problem with the VoIP phones is just about none of them supportWebRTC, they’re still on the SIP protocol. So it’s great to be a technologyvisionary and say, ‘hey, let’s throw all that stuff away, we’ve got new stuff,’but practically this does not work. There is a massive number of devices outthere, and they need to be integrated into the WebRTC environment. And now we’retalking about gateway, so we need a gateway from the old technology to the newtechnology; this is another must-have for any business communications system,that we can integrate desktop phones and other devices and other services. Forexample, ATAs are still around, they’re like door phones, analog lines for thisand that purpose, and don’t forget SIP trunks – we still need SIP trunks, andyou need to convert WebRTC to SIP and RTP for the SIP trunk, which needs to bedone through a gateway.

DG: Let’s talk about gateways. I understand you have actuallyimplemented a gateway that connects a VoIP phone to WebRTC.

CS:Yes. The browser obviously includes software that implements the WebRTC API,but the server doesn’t. So we had to go ahead and implement that part of theWebRTC API inside the server, so it can call from WebRTC into the mailbox orinto an IVR; the communication then is between browser and server. We can alsouse this to convert the traffic between the browser and the desktop phone and thebrowser and the SIP trunk. It was kind of a crazy project, a lot of work,obviously, but in hindsight we’re definitely very happy because now we havethese possibilities to connect a lot of this existing equipment with all ofthese cool new browsers and apps, and I think what we’ve achieved is a level ofchoice of device, which is tremendous – it presents so many possibilities tobusinesses. This is something really outstanding, unique in the industry, andI’m proud of this.

DG: Can’t the same thing be achieved with desktop apps?

CS: Yes. Some people are using softphones, using the protocols from thedesktop, so you can still do some of this sort of old school stuff. On theother hand, the desktop is usually very powerful, it can easily run a browserinside an app. This is why we prefer, with our Vodia apps, to use our ownWebRTC-based implementation. The SIP protocol has limits when it comes toadditional features. For example, if you want to set redirection targets, or ifyou want to set your presence, status, name, or if you want to upload yourprofile photo, right? These are all things that can’t be done over the SIPprotocol, and this is where the SIP phones are struggling. The SIP softphoneson a desktop don’t let you upload a profile picture, but we can do that ifwe’re using our own app because we’re tightly integrated with the backend. Thisis why I think using the integrated apps is more valuable than using a genericSIP softphone on the desktop.

DG: What about SIP trunks?

CS:There are so many SIP trunks out there, which is a great thing to have, and wecan’t just toss them and replace them – with what? We are actually thinkingabout doing WebRTC trunks. I haven’t seen anything out there, so maybe this isan opportunity, but it’s really hard to have a protocol for that, so if youwant to do termination today into the PSTN, you must use a SIP trunk,that’s how it is. Again, we’re able to convert the WebRTC to SIP trunks, so forus it's no problem, but maybe there’s something coming out that does nativeWebRTC in the future, and we’d definitely be happy to take a look at that, butright now it doesn’t exist.

DG: Now, with the onset of the Ukraine-Russia conflict,security is top of mind. Is WebRTC secure? After all, it’s open sourcesoftware.

CS: Open source isn’t bad for security, it’s goodfor security, because a lot of people can review what’s been done, which is agood thing. There’s the encryption part of it: WebRTC is a relatively newstandard and was developed with a lot of issues in mind; underneath they’reusing DTLS, essentially a UDP-based version of TLS, which means it’s a veryproven technology. They’re not reinventing the wheel, they’re just usingsomething that’s been out there a long, long time and has been deployed in somany places, and they’re using it for negotiating the SRTP keys and the endpoints.From a privacy point of view, this is definitely top notch, the way to go. Iknow some apps call it end-to-end encryption, and WebRTC is by definitionend-to-end encrypted, by the protocol standard, and this is a fantastic thing.The other big topic is DDoS. We saw a couple of DDoS attacks last year, andthey were so deleterious because SIP, from a global point of view, isn’t amainstream technology, especially the firewalls, which mostly deal with HTTP;they protect HTTP servers and traffic, but for SIP this is small, small part ofthe whole industry, which means there’s less choice, in terms of products, andin this respect the UDP protocol is more difficult to protect. This is largely whywe’ve seen these problems with SIP. The good news about WebRTC is it’sessentially based on HTTP – this means everything that was built forHTTP can now be used, and that’s definitely the best protection you can gettoday. If you can go to your cloud service provider and they can offer somekind of firewall that can deal with a ridiculous amount of traffic, like numberof packets and gigabits per second, they can all deal with that, you canbasically run a WebRTC-based server on the Internet that’s protected by theseservices. This is the best possible scenario right now, and I think these aregreat, great reasons to use WebRTC technology.

DG: What do you think will come after WebRTC?

CS: I really don’t know! What comes after the Internet?WebRTC properly addresses everything we were hoping for ten, twenty years ago. Overthe next few years we’re going to see a lot more products based on WebRTC andalso products handling WebRTC, in terms of firewalls and DDoS protection. Onetopic which hasn’t yet been resolved is quality of service, QOS, wherein theISPs give priority to WebRTC traffic, so you don’t have to be afraid thatyou’ll have audio problems. This may take place within a few years, that maybefirewalls are equipped to detect, ‘here’s a WebRTC call going on,’ and thefirewall prioritizes the packets automatically, so all these services usingWebRTC sound great. Apart from that, I would say over the next ten, twentyyears I can’t imagine anything replacing WebRTC. It’s a pretty safe investment,and we are happily investing more.

DG: I want to thank you for giving us this overview of WebRTC– millions of people are using it and they don’t even know it, and Vodia was anearly innovator here. I think you’ve really connected the dots today inexplaining to us how WebRTC retains currency, why it’s important, and how itworks with the other extant technology. Where can we learn more about WebRTCand VoIP and about the Vodia phone system?

CS: If you’re really interested in the technical details, youcan always visit WebRTC.org, it’s a very good site. And though Vodia.com isn’t necessarily a reference sitefor WebRTC, you’ll find some helpful information there. This kind ofconversation, where we go under the hood, it’s not necessarily for end users,it’s a great starting point to learn more about WebRTC – hopefully more peoplewill jump on the train, join the conversation and use this beautifultechnology. It’s the way to go. Thanks for having me on your podcast.

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