Quality of Service

Quality of Service, or QoS as it’s more popularly termed, refers to the challenge of delivering a time-sensitive stream of data across a network that was designed to deliver data in an ad hoc, best-effort sort of way. Although there is no hard rule, it is generally accepted that if you can deliver the sound produced by the speaker to the listener’s ear within 150 milliseconds, a normal flow of conversation is possible. When delay exceeds 300 milliseconds, it becomes difficult to avoid interrupting each other. Beyond 500 milliseconds, normal conversation becomes increasingly awkward and frustrating.

In addition to getting it there on time, it is also essential to ensure that the transmitted information arrives intact. Too many lost packets will prevent the far end from completely reproducing the sampled audio, and gaps in the data will be heard as static or, in severe cases, entire missed words or sentences. Even packet loss of 5 percent can severely impede a VoIP network.


If you’re going to send data on an IP-based network, it will be transported using one of the three transport protocols discussed here.

Transmission Control Protocol

The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is almost never used for VoIP, for while it does have mechanisms in place to ensure delivery, it is not inherently in any hurry to do so. Unless there is an extremely low-latency interconnection between the two endpoints, TCP will tend to cause more problems than it solves.

The purpose of TCP is to guarantee the delivery of packets. In order to do this, several mechanisms are implemented, such as packet numbering (for reconstructing blocks of data), delivery acknowledgment, and re-requesting of lost packets. In the world of VoIP, getting the packets to the endpoint quickly is paramount—but 20 years of cellular telephony has trained us to tolerate a few lost packets.[213]

TCP’s high processing overhead, state management, and acknowledgment of arrival work well for transmitting large amounts of data, but they simply aren’t efficient enough for real-time media communications.

User Datagram Protocol

Unlike TCP, the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) does not offer any sort of delivery guarantee. Packets are placed on the wire as quickly as possible and released into the world to find their way to their final destinations, with no word back as to whether they got there or not. Since UDP itself does not offer any kind of guarantee that the data will arrive,[214] it achieves its efficiency by spending very little effort on what it is transporting.


TCP is a more “socially responsible” protocol because the bandwidth is more evenly distributed to clients connecting to a server. As the percentage of UDP traffic increases, it is possible that a network could become overwhelmed.

Stream Control Transmission Protocol

Approved by the IETF as a proposed standard in RFC 2960, SCTP is a relatively new transport protocol. From the ground up, it was designed to address the shortcomings of both TCP and UDP, especially as related to the types of services that used to be delivered over circuit-switched telephony networks.

Some of the goals of SCTP were:

  • Better congestion-avoidance techniques (specifically, avoiding denial of service attacks)

  • Strict sequencing of data delivery

  • Lower latency for improved real-time transmissions

By addressing the major shortcomings of TCP and UDP, SCTP’s developers hoped to create a robust protocol for the transmission of SS7 and other types of PSTN signaling over an IP-based network.

Differentiated Service

Differentiated service, or DiffServ, is not so much a QoS mechanism as a method by which traffic can be flagged and given specific treatment. Obviously, DiffServ can help to provide QoS by allowing certain types of packets to take precedence over others. While this will certainly increase the chance of a VoIP packet passing quickly through each link, it does not guarantee anything.

Guaranteed Service

The ultimate guarantee of QoS is provided by the PSTN. For each conversation, a 64-Kbps channel is completely dedicated to the call; the bandwidth is guaranteed. Similarly, protocols that offer guaranteed service can ensure that a required amount of bandwidth is dedicated to the connection being served. As with any packetized networking technology, these mechanisms generally operate best when traffic is below maximum levels. When a connection approaches its limits, it is next to impossible to eliminate degradation.


Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) is a method for engineering network traffic patterns independent of layer-3 routing tables. The protocol works by assigning short labels (MPLS frames) to network packets, which routers then use to forward the packets to the MPLS egress router, and ultimately to their final destinations. Traditionally, routers make an independent forwarding decision based on an IP table lookup at each hop in the network. In an MPLS network, this lookup is performed only once, when the packet enters the MPLS cloud at the ingress router. The packet is then assigned to a stream, referred to as a Label Switched Path (LSP), and identified by a label. The label is used as a lookup index in the MPLS forwarding table, and the packet traverses the LSP independent of layer-3 routing decisions. This allows the administrators of large networks to fine-tune routing decisions and make the best use of network resources. Additionally, information can be associated with a label to prioritize packet forwarding.


MPLS contains no method to dynamically establish LSPs, but you can use the Reservation Protocol (RSVP) with MPLS. RSVP is a signaling protocol used to simplify the establishment of LSPs and to report problems to the MPLS ingress router. The advantage of using RSVP in conjunction with MPLS is the reduction in administrative overhead. If you don’t use RSVP with MPLS, you’ll have to go to every single router and configure the labels and each path manually. Using RSVP makes the network more dynamic by distributing control of labels to the routers. This enables the network to become more responsive to changing conditions, because it can be set up to change the paths based on certain conditions, such as a certain path going down (perhaps due to a faulty router). The configuration within the router will then be able to use RSVP to distribute new labels to the routers in the MPLS network, with no (or minimal) human intervention.

Best Effort

The simplest, least expensive approach to QoS is not to provide it at all—the “best effort” method. While this might sound like a bad idea, it can in fact work very well. Any VoIP call that traverses the public Internet is almost certain to be best-effort, as QoS mechanisms are not yet common in this environment.

[213] The order of arrival is important in voice communication, because the audio will be processed and sent to the caller ASAP. However, with a jitter buffer the order of arrival isn’t as important, as it provides a small window of time in which the packets can be reordered before being passed on to the caller.

[214] Keep in mind that the upper-layer protocols or applications can implement their own packet-acknowledgment systems.