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Voice over IP is ready, so what's the hang up?

J.B. Miles

Voice over IP technology is ready for the big time, but it will be a while before the federal government is ready for it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the difficulties of predicting exactly what voice over IP would look like in the future [GCN, Oct. 26, 1998, Page 47]. The problems of keeping hardware and software development costs at a reasonable level while ensuring quality of service, good feature sets and messaging security was going to be problematic.

I predicted that when voice over IP technology finally matured it would penetrate federal network systems and might even show up in FTS 2001 contracts.

Well, the future is now, voice over IP has developed into a mature technology and my rosy prognostication about its use in federal agencies has proved wrong. Only a handful of government agencies use it, and it apparently doesn't rate even a tiny gleam in the eyes of FTS 2001 architects.

The question is, why not? In competing with traditional circuit-switched telephone services, makers of voice over IP systems have so far dealt very successfully with the issues of comparative cost, features, quality of service and interoperability between different vendors' equipment. They have met all the challenges.

Point 1: LAN-based voice over IP technology provides lower overall operating costs than traditional circuit-switched systems, even when factoring in the high costs of carrier-based switches or voice-enabled private branch exchanges at user sites. When the all-important issue of convergence'the ability to use a single network for multiple purposes including data, voice, voice-over data and multimedia'is considered, the cost benefits of voice over IP become even more attractive.

Point 2: Voice-enabled hardware, switch and PBX makers provide suites of features that exceed those of even the most advanced voice-only systems.

Point 3: Voice over IP systems can actually achieve better voice quality than circuit-switched voice telephony. Using wideband codecs, the phone sets of today's second generation voice over IP systems can offer much better quality.

Point 4: While interoperability among different manufacturers' voice over IP equipment isn't fully guaranteed, a variety of industry-standard protocols such as H.323, which establishes methods for setting up IP connections and sending data across them, as well as some proprietary protocols will eventually solve the interoperability puzzle. At any rate, most large or medium-sized organizations rely on a single voice over IP vendor, a trend that is likely to continue into the future.

So why isn't voice over IP playing to a larger federal audience? Maybe, before the technology can really take off, manufacturers must first overcome the thought that it is designed mainly for people who want to beat the system by establishing PC-to-PC voice communications over the Internet with microphones and specialized software to get free, long-distance telephone calls.

Although those first-generation systems were cheap, they were also undependable and don't equate in any way with the voice over IP services currently available.

The second hurdle faced by voice over IP comes from an identity crisis within the industry itself. To date, there seems to be little agreement among board, gateway, PBX and switch manufacturers as to how, when and where their products are complementary or competitive.

Despite the assurances of PBX vendors, voice quality or general quality of service over IP is not fully guaranteed and the H.323 standard, it doesn't fully address the question of interoperability, much less the quality of service issue.

But I also believe that it's only a matter of time until voice over IP reaches its full potential. It is a gateway technology that eventually will provide a full gamut of data, voice and streaming video services to network users at low cost. It will bring tremendous benefits to users and will change the shape of traditional communications technology as we know it.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers.

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