The VOIP revolution
- By William Jackson
- Jun 06, 2006
CHICAGO'IP is inevitable. The vendors of software, hardware and services at this week's GlobalComm trade show agree that in the not-too-distant future IP will be the dominant transport mechanism for voice.
'Voice over IP is making steady progress,' said Jim Webster, director of software technologies for Digium Inc. of Huntsville, Ala. 'Within five years the majority of PBXs will be using VOIP.'
The number of VOIP ports being sold outpaced traditional, time-division multiplexing phone ports for the first time last year. Most of those are not yet in actual production, however. They were bought for future proofing or were just a standard feature included in the IP switch. But as existing telephone equipment reaches the end of its supported life, it is only a matter of time before carriers and enterprises will be forced to move voice traffic to IP, whether they want to or not.
'Sooner or later, TDM products are not going to be available'period,' said Kerry Shih, CEO of SyncVoice Communications Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif.
That does not mean that traditional phone service will disappear any time soon.
'Hybridization is going to go on ad-infinitum,' Shih said. 'But sooner or later you are going to have to figure out how to do it.'
Of course, these and other vendors exhibiting their products on the show floor have a vested interest in your moving to VOIP. But there are valid business and technical reasons for making the move.
First of all there are the savings. Carriers are looking for cost savings in terminating voice calls, said Baruch Sterman, CEO of Kayote Networks Corp. of Passaic, N.J. The cost of moving data across a domestic IP connection is about one tenth the cost of pushing traditional voice, Sterman said.
There also are the savings for enterprises in eliminating a separate voice network and associated equipment. Sylantro Systems Corp. of Campbell, Calif., offers application feature servers for PBXs hosted by service providers so that enterprises do not have to buy and maintain their own. With the advent of broadband network connections, copper lines for voice no longer are the precious commodities that made the PBX an attractive piece of customer premises equipment, said Sylantro CEO Pete Bonee. Think of it as taking the 'private' out of private branch exchange.
If you don't want to turn your PBX over to your service provider, you can build your own with open-source software from Digium. Asterisk is a free download that lets users build their own PBX on a PC or server to link an IP network with traditional phone systems. The company is announcing at GlobalComm a new version of its Asterisk Business Edition that supports more network interfaces and adds speech recognition for interactive voice response applications and text-to-speech for remote access to text documents by phone.
Consumers are drawn to VOIP primarily because of price, Kayote's Sterman said.
'In my opinion, that is a shame,' he said. 'If all a VOIP provider offers is a cheaper phone call, Sprint has deep pockets and can drop its rates.'
Bonee agrees that price is not enough reason to switch.
'What we really find more compelling are the new applications,' he said.
These include the ability to merge communications, text and voice, on a single platform, fixed or mobile. VOIP users also can have a single number follow them wherever they go, and can manage how that number is used depending on the identity of the caller and the time and location of the call. Managing voice networks also could be easier through a Web portal than in the telecom wiring closet.
Taking full advantage of VOIP functionality is made easier by end-to-end IP connections. Kayote helps here by providing a native IP voice network to provide IP peering for carriers.
'We don't want to be a carrier,' he said. 'We want to be a network provider for carriers.'
Kayote is providing the links for the first large-scale VOIP peering project, which will begin nine months of trials this month in the Netherlands. The test will provide fully IP-to-IP domestic calls without connections through traditional telephone links.
With all of these arguments for moving to VOIP, why are we not all there yet? Two primary reasons are concerns quality about quality of service and capital investments in legacy telecom systems.
The reluctance to trust a critical application such as voice to IP is particularly evident in government, Shih said. 'What we see there is a lot of hesitancy to migrate to voice over IP too fast.' After all, there some two billion phones in the world, and 'most of the world still is TDM today.'
The investment in legacy technology is likely to work itself out soon. VOIP has been around as a viable alternative for about 10 years now and the life span of most telephone equipment is around seven years. The conversion to VOIP should accelerate as part of the routine IT upgrade cycle.
Ensuring quality of service necessary for voice over IP networks remains the final major hurdle for VOIP.
'Most of the other technical challenges have been worked out for some time,' said Webster. 'VOIP is fairly mature at this point and supported by a number of vendors.'
SyncVoice helps enterprises plan for the necessary quality of service with its VXTracker, a voice management solution for hybrid IP and TDM networks. It provides the controls, visibility and analytics for managing a voice network to current IT management standards, Shih said.
VXTracker runs on a server with interfaces to gather log data from both IP and TDM infrastructures, storing the data for analysis. It lets both administrators and corporate managers understand how voice is being used on the networks, what the capacity of the IP network is and what the impact of voice is on the IP network.
This helps not only manage existing infrastructure, but plan for and manage the inevitable migration from traditional to IP voice.
After all, 'everything is going to go to IP,' Bonee said. 'There's no reason not to use it.'
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.