Agencies are on the brink of IP telephony

When reading about product literature nowadays, you would think
that voice over Internet service is just as close as the telephone itself.


If you thought per-call prices over FTS 2000 circuits were at rock bottom, consider a
new technology that could reduce the cost of calls even more and, more importantly,
provide integrated services over IP.


Still in its infancy stage, IP telephony is under examination by more than a few
agencies as a telecommunications alternative.


Voice over IP is appealing, but early adopters are generally cautious.


In most instances, IP telephony doesn’t come near the reliability or sound quality
of regular phone service. The vicissitudes of IP transmissions, of course, extend to
nonvoice data applications.


Demand for better service over IP networks comes from both users and service providers.


Network managers have different ideas of the quality they can expect, and IP
applications vary widely. Some managers will use the Internet for everything but
mission-critical, time-sensitive mainframe applications. Others want IP service to cover
multimedia data packets, including full duplex, or two-way voice and video.


Customers of one IP service should be able to reach those using another.


Vendors are making headway in this capability.


FTS 2000 contractors, for instance, have already made significant investments in IP
interoperability. AT&T Corp. and Sprint Corp. realize the potential dollar savings in
delivery costs and the need to be increasingly competitive. AT&T is reportedly
planning to move its entire long-distance telephone network to IP. With a core set of
authentication, accounting, security, access control and user registry functions, it can
provide support for both operations and management applications.


Researchers are demonstrating voice, video and fax over IP services.


Sprint is experimenting with a new phone-to-phone service that uses its own IP backbone
instead of the standard, switched-circuit telephone network. Customers can call within the
United States and to foreign cities using IP. Sprint’s new capability expands
long-distance, wireless, prepaid calling card and toll-free consumer services.


Other vendors are developing voice and fax over IP hardware and software to offload
traffic from public switched networks to existing data infrastructures. Voice quality,
though inferior to what you get over existing public networks, is better than that
provided by products that use the Internet.


Some agencies are interested.


NASA, as you might expect, routinely monitors emerging technologies such as voice over
IP. Although the agency hasn’t conducted any pilot demonstrations, NASA officials
have said they are considering initiating one within the next 18 months. NASA is
interested in supporting integrated voice and data delivery to remote science
investigators. The agency wants to reduce the costs of maintaining dedicated voice
circuits for real-time space flight operations.


The information technology folks at the Federal Aviation Administration are not ready
to trust the Internet for operational traffic. Lack of security and reliability limit the
role the Internet will play in FAA’s plans.


In other initiatives, agencies are investigating integrating data and voice services on
the same circuit:


The effort will test whether speech recognition software can successfully capture and
understand interactive voice response prompts generated by computer telephony
applications.


With teleconferencing of interest to every agency, voice over IP can be a low-cost
alternative to videoconferencing. The more interest agencies show, the more attention
product and service providers will pay. Note, too, that standards for videoconferencing
over IP are just now starting to jell, so available products work but are difficult to
implement.


Still, now that IP is pretty much everywhere in the government, it’s probably time
to make the technology useful and more manageable. Everyone has telephone access; agencies
should consider whether to turn the near-ubiquity of IP into an alternate telephone
channel.


Of course, there will be problems.


On a high-performance network moving lots of multimedia files, the addition of
relatively small voice data may hardly make a dent in performance.


But voice over IP audio, if widely deployed, could swamp slower LANs that primarily
move ASCII files. The Internet still does not relieve reliability and security
apprehensions.


But, as a manager of NASA’s Lewis Center recently noted, the IP telephony market
is growing, and the quality of the products is improving rapidly.


The technology will eventually get there, but at this point voice over IP products
can’t deliver the reliability, quality of service or sound clarity of regular phone
service. Many IP services are still on the horizon.


The medium that will make them possible, the public Internet, is maturing. The
Internet is no longer a passive channel for the delivery of documents and database output.


It’s an interactive network on which sound and video in commercial apps are
common.


Robert Deller is president of Market Access International Inc., an information
technology market research, sales and support company in Chevy Chase, Md. His e-mail
address is bdeller@markess.com.
 

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