Despite promise, voice over IP is still in the talking stage

Despite promise, voice over IP is still in the talking stage

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

Voice over IP promises to reduce the cost of telephone calls, simplify infrastructure and ease integration of applications by making voice just another type of data carried over the LAN or WAN.

'It's very rare that you talk to a customer who doesn't believe IP telephony is the way things are going,' said Mike Rav, senior engineering manager with the federal consulting organization of Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

Vendors report a lot of interest in voice over IP among federal customers. But beyond several rapid deployment applications, there are few instances of agencies implementing it.

Needs more time

'It's just not quite ready to roll out across the enterprise,' said Carroll Wright, chief technologist for the government systems division of Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J.

Neither the Federal Technology Service nor the Defense Information Systems Agency, two major providers of communications services to federal users, reports any voice over IP offerings for their government customers.

The lack of quality-of-service guarantees on IP networks'which Rav calls the first building blocks of IP telephony'is one barrier to the technology. Another is the low reliability of data networks and servers that would take the place of traditional circuit-switched voice networks, said Paul Kraska of Multi-Tech Systems Inc. of Mounds View, Minn.

'Let's face it, [Microsoft] Windows crashes,' said Kraska, whose company makes IP voice gateways. 'I'm not surprised that the government hasn't been an implementer.'

Voice over IP uses the Internet Protocol to move voice transmissions over data networks. Traditional telephone transmissions use switched circuits, a connection that stays open and dedicated for the length of the call. This provides excellent quality but is bandwidth intensive and often is charged for by the minute. Voice over IP packetizes voice transmissions and routes the packets like other kinds of data. This uses bandwidth efficiently and can cost less but often sacrifices quality and reliability.

One of the initial attractions of voice over IP was the ability to make virtually free long-distance phone calls over the Internet. But the Internet is notoriously unmanaged, providing spotty quality at best and giving voice over IP a bad reputation.

'It tends to get a black eye because of the public Internet,' said Patrick McConnell, executive sales manager for civilian networks for MCI WorldCom Inc.'s government markets division.

Voice over the Internet is improving as algorithms are tweaked, but corporate LANs and WANs or national IP networks managed by service providers are where voice service is likely to end up.

As long-distance rates drop, toll-avoidance is becoming a less important driver for voice over IP, especially for government users. Under the FTS 2001 contracts with MCI WorldCom and Sprint Corp., government customers are paying pennies per minute for long-distance service. By 2005, the rates will be measured in minutes per penny.

The big attractions in putting voice on a data network are the elimination'or at least reduction'of a dedicated voice network and closer integration of voice with other applications.

Although Kraska does not believe that voice over IP will be common all the way to the desktop PC, he expects it will be integrated into the telephone infrastructure over time. There are two camps in this process, he said: networking companies that perceive voice as just another part of the data world, and traditional telephone companies that see IP as an efficient transport mechanism for voice.

'If I were a betting man, I'd bet on the telephone infrastructure beating out the router folks,' Kraska said.

In the telephone camp is Lucent, which last month released IP ExchangeComm, the first of a new family of IP telephony systems for which it is recruiting third-party application developers. Initial applications include a suite of basic computer telephony functions such as screen pop and call routing, call accounting functions, a multimedia customer interaction suite, and a meeting application.

'A lot of the major agencies have pilots they are running with voice over IP,' Lucent's Wright said. But few of the tests have been successful, he said.

In the networking camp is Cisco, where 'we're seeing a tremendous amount of interest,' Rav said. Cisco's federal customers want to take advantage of revolutionary IP telephony, he said.

So far, however, most of Cisco's government work in this area has been in establishing an infrastructure by installing voice over IP-ready switches and routers.

Actual deployment of voice over IP has been limited largely to agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and some military customers who use voice over IP for rapid deployment of small systems to remote sites.

Science fact

Although voice over IP is still waiting in the wings, Robert Deutsch, director of engineering for Cisco's federal systems, said it would be seen as a mature technology 'in the not-too-distant future.'

MCI WorldCom is in the process of providing voice over IP to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Labor Department's Job Corps.

'Neither one is up and running right now,' said Tony Bardo, executive director of civilian networks for MCI WorldCom. Voice over IP 'still is very much in the project stage' rather than an easily obtained service, he said.

FDIC and the Job Corps have in common a network of widely distributed regional offices with a growing volume of data traffic that makes investment in a common IP network for both voice and data attractive, Bardo said. Not only will it provide savings on long-distance calls, it also will require fewer resources to manage, he said.

MCI WorldCom's McConnell said: 'Training becomes easier. You train them on one LAN and a router and that's it.'

For the near future, Multi-Tech sees voice over IP remaining primarily in the niche of providing service to remote sites.

'I think we're in an environment where putting phones over data lines is not going to fly yet,' Kraska said. 'We have a very comfortable niche that I think is going to be around for a long while.

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