Voice over IP is the maverick technology for 2001

The attractions of voice over IP technology are undeniable, not the least
of which is price. With an Internet connection, calls—even long-distance—are
practically free, beating even the 7-cent-per-minute price agencies have been paying under
the General Services Administration’s FTS 2000 contracts.


But equally undeniable are its problems—hardware and software expense, training,
maintenance, bandwidth, voice quality and security, to name a few.


Just as the Federal Telecommunications Systems’ contracts evolved to include
services not envisioned when they were awarded in 1988, expectations are that FTS
2001’s future will be dynamic. When voice over IP technology matures, look for it to
turn up on FTS 2001 contracts.


A subset of Internet telephony, voice over IP started a couple of years ago when a few
computer nerds started talking to each other across the Internet using only their PCs,
modems, a microphone and some specialized software. Though a few gimmicks have since been
added—you can use a handset or call standard telephones from a PC—the basics
remain the same. All it takes is a standard Pentium PC or Macintosh computer, high-speed
duplex modem, microphone or PC telephone handset and the right software.


The technology has taken several turns during the past year or so, making it difficult
to predict where it’s going. This collective identity crisis makes some information
systems managers hesitant to gamble time and money on an approach that could become a
technological backwater.


Inexpensive, client-based PC software systems, telephone handsets and IP black box
solutions represent only a tiny fraction of what is likely to become a $60 billion
Internet telephony industry by 2002.


With one of the cheaper Internet telephony products, you can dip a toe into the voice
over IP waters without risking very much. An initial investment usually doesn’t
exceed the price of an in-place PC system, software that’s often free and an Internet
connection.


Before spending even one dime, however, take a look at what is to come in Internet
telephony. Communications hardware makers such as Lucent Technologies Inc. and Cisco
Systems Inc. are moving into the Internet telephony market by acquiring smaller companies
in the voice over IP business.


The collaborations will result in advanced multimedia IP transport capabilities not
only for voice, but for videoconferencing and data as well. Lucent and Sun Microsystems
Inc. recently announced a joint effort to develop a unified messaging platform for
sending, receiving and managing all voice, e-mail, faxes and video transmissions from any
telephone, PC or information device, according to a Lucent spokesperson.


In the shorter term, voice over IP gateways, which translate analog voice signals into
digital data packets for transmission over IP networks, are the future for IP
communications for medium-to-large government agencies.


Hypercom Network Systems, Intelliswitch Inc., NetSpeak Corp. and VocalTec
Communications Ltd. are among the dozens of companies ramping up to provide high-end
gateways for Internet telephony. Micom Communications Corp. and Brooktrout Technology Inc.
are developing board-level products to fit into the gateways.


Motorola Inc. recently announced its voice over IP Router series of dedicated IP
routers that are scalable from one to hundreds of lines.


Dozens of new Internet telephony service providers are springing up to take advantage
of the lucrative possibilities involved in bypassing conventional long-distance carriers
for IP-based services.


Qwest Communications Inc., PSINet Inc., IGC Communications and others are planning to
provide regional and national IP telephony scaled for relatively large users at costs
ranging from about 5 cents to less than 10 cents per minute. Delta Three Inc., Mediacom
Technologies Inc. and Net2Phone Inc. provide client PC software or telephone handsets that
let users link to the companies’ own IP networks for reduced per-minute telephone
charges.


Not to be outdone, conventional circuit-switched long-distance service providers such
as AT&T Corp., MCI Corp. and Sprint Corp. are designing Internet telephony networks of
their own to provide high-speed audio/video and multimedia and better connections, all at
per-call rates greatly reduced from those now made under standard circuit-switched or
advanced Integrated Services Digital Network and Asymmetric Digital Service Line services.


Check the accompanying list for voice over IP software and hardware systems. All run
under Microsoft Windows or MacOS and provide various levels of IP-based audio or video
connectivity with another PC or telephone user. But they are surprisingly different in
their approaches to their tasks.


Communiqu' Laboratory Inc.’s $109 Communicate 8.0 is a full-featured fax and data
communications package with built-in voice over IP capability. White Pine Software
Inc.’s $89 CU-SeeME 1.1 is similar and can be used over the Internet and any TCP/IP
network.


Microsoft Corp.’s free NetMeeting is a component of Explorer 4.x that provides not
only voice and video over IP, but also a full range of collaboration, whiteboard and file
transfer features. NetSpeak Corp.’s $50 WebPhone 4 includes full-featured audio,
video and text messaging over the Internet, and VocalTec’s $50 Internet Phone 5.0 for
Windows and the Macintosh lets PC users call telephone users over an IP connection.


The $199 Aplio/Phone 1.5 is a little black box with a built-in modem, processor and
software that connects with a standard telephone at both ends to set up an IP handshake on
an Internet connection. Riparius Ventures Inc.’s $25 INT100CS is an IP handset that
plugs into a PC sound card. The $375 Selsius-Phone Model 12S is a full-featured Windows NT
Ethernet telephone set with IP capability.


Read the fine print first. Most telephony packages require a subscription to an
Internet service provider. Most also require a duplicate software package or handset at
the other end. And despite the H.323 interoperability protocol recently approved by the
International Telecommunications Union, many programs don’t yet support it, so
don’t expect your Acme Corp. IP GizmoPhone to work with an XYZ Inc. NetChatterBox
just yet.


Some of the software prices are deceptive. Mediacom’s MediaRing Talk 2.1b and
Net2Phone’s Net2Phone 8.67 can be downloaded free from the vendor’s Web site and
appear to provide free PC-to-telephone connections. In fact, both establish a link to
their respective company’s gateway, through which the IP call is established for a
fee, however minimal. VocalTec’s $50 Internet Phone will also let PC users call a
regular telephone over an IP connection, but the caller must use an Internet service
provider with a VocalTec gateway to make the system work.


Some of the free software downloads are unsatisfactorily limited versions. You’ll
need to pay $50 or so for an upgrade to get the performance you require.


Keep in mind a few other disadvantages of low-end voice over IP:


n Imperfect sound quality. The Internet was designed for data, not voice, and the
data packet convention used by IP networks is best designed for e-mail and other data
transfer systems. Heavy network traffic can mean delays that aren’t usually
noticeable unless real-time voice messaging is involved. Gateway vendors are working on
solutions to the problem, but with most products you won’t be able to hear
Sprint’s proverbial pin drop. Use a headset if you are working from a PC.


Look at voice over IP systems as an interesting technology to try before you buy as the
new fleet of high-end Internet telephony products begins to move in.  


J.B. Miles writes about communications and computers from Carlsbad, Calif.

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