Independent and decentralized alternatives to federation

Federation takes a lot of power from the telephone industry and places more power and control in the hands of organizations and individuals who run their own servers. This is generally a good thing for innovation, cost-efficiency, privacy and many other reasons.

Critics of federation observe that while this model is not as tightly centralized as a traditional telephone network, it is built around a client-server model, leaving power in the hands of those who are able to operate the servers. Like many Internet-based technologies, it also relies heavily on other centralized services: the DNS protocol and the certificate authorities.

Private networks

Some operators have created private networks, where users can only call other users with the same softphone. All the users communicate through a central server. The operator chooses to locate the server in a location they believe to be secure and where they believe the risk of surveillance is low, such as Switzerland.

Signal, the successor to RedPhone and TextSecure from Open Whisper Systems, operates through privately run servers. Administrators of the servers are able to observe who is calling who but without knowing what they are saying.

Decentralized networks

Various solutions have begun to emerge in the hope of further eliminating these dependencies and offering a genuinely decentralized service. In a truly decentralized service, the developer/founder of the service is not even able to see which users are calling each other, making it more secure than privately run services such as Signal.

A fundamental issue for these alternatives is the addressing scheme. Some rely on phone numbers and some of these solutions require their users to use an identifier other than a phone number, exchanging the identifiers in person or though some other communications channel. If phone numbers are used, it makes the service more convenient but this implies placing some trust in the phone numbering scheme operated by the telephone industry.

Another fundamental issue for these services is bootstrapping: how the client finds other peer-to-peer participants the first time the user runs the software. The current solution to this is usually a central server keeping a list of peers to seed the clients.

Examples of some decentralized and peer-to-peer networks include the Ring softphone from Savoir Faire Linux, using the OpenDHT network, the Tox app and the service.


While some of these alternatives are promising, none of them offers a silver bullet. Private and decentralized services are only useful for specific purposes where two people know each other personally, such as calling a spouse, a physician calling a patient or a lawyer communicating with a client.

For large organizations that deal with other large organizations and with the public in a less personal manner, the decentralized model is not universally applicable and a federated model is more likely to gain traction and meet operational needs. That said, it is not uncommon for senior executives in some large corporations to seek out specialized communications solutions so they can have private conversations with each other and their closest advisors.

Decentralized services are not mutually exclusive with federated RTC. It is quite feasible for an organization to operate standard SIP or XMPP internally but setup a gateway at the edge of their network to accept calls from customers using alternative services. The external user needs to have some way to be certain that their call is connected to an account controlled by the organization they want to contact and not an imposter or a man-in-the-middle who is relaying the call while monitoring it.