Web RTC: Niche tech empowers developers; here’s how

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August 11, 2016 6:19 AM

A niche technology, called Web RTC, offers developers the ability to write rich, real-time multimedia apps on the web, without requiring plug-ins or downloads

As the days of traditional circuit switched telephone calls are numbered, paving way for new forms of communication, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has issued a consultation paper recently on internet telephony/voice over internet protocol. While the consultation paper invites comments on various forms of internet telephony, there are a number of references to the traditional telephony architecture, presumably to provide a level playing field between public switched telephony carriers and internet telephony firms. A number of issues raised in the consultation paper including location of origination/destination, interconnection across networks and associated charges and regulation of the service providers lose their relevance with the advent of newer types of peer-to-peer (P2P) communication services.

At this juncture, it is worth looking at developments in P2P communication which has not been addressed in Trai’s consultation paper. The technology that is disrupting this space is WebRTC (Web Real Time Communication), the standard of which has been drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The technology allows P2P multimedia communication from one internet user to another over simple Web browsers, via simple “non- proprietary” Javascript application programme interfaces (API) or the open HTML 5.

It simply means that users can initiate a voice/video call directly from their mobile/laptop Web browsers without the need for any external software application such as Skype or WhatsApp.

WebRTC offers web application developers the ability to write rich, real-time multimedia applications on the web, without requiring plug-ins, downloads or installs. This can have major impact in areas such as education where a teacher can conduct a virtual classroom with hundreds of students across the world or conduct a personal tutor session on a complex physics subject to a remote student, over just the browser. Incidentally, the WebRTC was initiated by Google for inclusion in its Chrome browsers; however, after the adoption by W3C, it has become a widely accepted standard for inclusion in all web browsers.

The unique aspect of this communication technology is that it does not require any centralised service to connect the origin and destination and in its purest P2P form, it can be a potential death knell for internet telephony applications such as Skype. The technology consists of three major APIs which can be called from a variety of programming languages for (i) accessing the multimedia resources on the source/ destination system; (ii) for initiating the P2P connection using standard protocols such as session initiation protocol (SIP) and (iii) to construct the data channel for sharing information across the connected parties.

Though, WebRTC currently powers the widely used WhatsApp audio calls, Google Hangout, Facebook Messenger, and Amazon Mayday, the possibilities of startups using the framework to build interesting WebRTC compliant applications is huge. There are more than 700 firms using WebRTC in some of their applications and the number is growing at a rate of 50% every year.

There are interesting alliances and partnerships being formed in the WebRTC space as well. The
internet telephony company Vonage acquired Nexmo, the leader in communications as a service platform for $230 million to augment its product and services portfolio; Mitel Networks—the provider of enterprise unified communications acquired Polycom, the leader in video and audio communication products for $1.96 bn; Telefonica Digital, the media arm of the giant Spanish carrier Telefonica, made big investment in its bid to become an international communications platform extending beyond basic voice and data services by acquiring TokBox, a video calling platform that works across websites and mobile apps through a series of APIs.

There are interesting technology developments in the WebRTC space as well. The Google team is working on WebRTC extensions that can work in low bandwidth connections, obviously targeting at countries such as India.

Since access of the Web using mobile devices is increasing, hybrid WebRTC apps are being built to work on multiple platforms such as Android and iOS.

There are questions for policy makers as well. How do these P2P communication services be regulated if at all, when there may not be a service provider in the middle to provide a centralised directory service and patching up the P2P connection? Are the traditional methods of interconnection including termination charges be applicable at all when these types of technologies get adopted? It is time that the sector regulator such as Trai starts looking at this evolving technology landscape while prescribing regulatory solutions.

Saurav Panda is co-founder of Epecate; V Sridhar is professor, IIIT-Bangalore

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