A recent study by a Montreal-based automated test systems company found that the quality of Voice over IP has significantly improved in the last 12 months, but users are still experiencing quality issues such as echoing and choppy connections.

Minacom, which builds service level test systems for telcos and cablecos like Bell and Rogers, released a report based on customer data that measures hundreds of calls each month. The study was a followup to an earlier report that irked some of Minacom’s customers, because it indicated that one in five Internet phone calls were classified as unacceptable and that call quality was steadily declining.

“They were irritated by it because it discredited their offerings by saying that digital phone service was substandard and declining,” said Scott Sumner, director of marketing at Minacom, adding that the report, which was conducted by Brix Networks, wasn’t clear in terms of exactly what they were studying. For example, the Brix report did not specify that they evaluated computer-to-computer, or PC-PC VoIP services like those offered by Skype, Google Talk, MSN and Yahoo Messenger.

In contrast, Minacom’s report found that one out of 50 calls in North America were considered to be unacceptable, while one in 10 worldwide were considered to be unacceptable. Eighty-five per cent of respondents said that greater than 85 per cent of VoIP calls exceed the average Public Service Telephone Network (PSTN) quality.

Poor quality Internet phone service stem from several issues. These include distorted speech, echoing and call volume.

“The typical thing people are bothered by is distorted speech,” said Sumner. “That’s a problem when packets of data carrying voice get lost on the way. The end user perceives as a distorted signal.”

Sumner added that echoing happens quite a bit in VoIP, especially when going from an Internet-based network to a traditional phone network.

If you’re hearing an echo in their speech or if you’re hearing and echo in yourself, that happens quite a bit in Voice over IP. It goes from an Internet-based network into a phone network.

Roberta Fox, an analyst with Fox Group, is an early-adopter of VoIP technology and is currently running five VoIP services in her workplace. These include MSN VoIP, Skype, soft phones, hosted VoIP, Nortel VoIP running on a LAN, Telus IP One and Bell Canada Digital Voice Lite.

<p.In terms of LAN VoIP applications, Fox said corporate networks are gradually getting upgraded, which is helping to improve the quality of service.

“Where the gaps are is in the soft phones or in the MSNs or the Skypes,” she said. “That takes it down to the lowest common denominator, which is having problems at the PC level.”

At the enterprise level experts and those in the industry stress the importance of ensuring that the network is able to handle the extra traffic that VoIP creates, said Fox.

“It’s very critical if you are running enterprise VoIP, you have to have a well-designed, well-managed and well-maintained data network,” she said. “Most data networks are under-engineered and you put voice on top of it and it breaks the network.”

Joe Parent, vice-president of marketing and business development, Vonage Canada, which has two residential and two small business VoIP offerings, said the quality of Internet connectivity is paramount when it comes to voice quality.

“The weakest link in the entire chain is the underlying quality of the Internet connection,” said Parent. “As long as your ISP is giving you a good underlying quality service with the right level of bandwidth then you should be fine.”

Parent added Vonage recommends a minimum download speed of 1.5 MB.Internet connectivity is rarely a problem with most enterprise-level installations, as they have their own network in addition to the Internet, said Lawrence Byrd, director of IP telephone and mobility at Avaya.

“At the top level, most IP telephony deployments within corporations are leveraging their own networks that they control,” said Byrd. “That allows us to provide rich, enterprise-level quality.”

At the other end, consumer grade services operate under the assumption that one phone call will traverse the user’s connection at a time, said Matt Stein, vice-president of new technology and services at Primus Canada, which launched its VoIP offering in January 2004.

“You try to put two phone calls across that same connection, and you might have some challenges,” he said. “(The user) is going to want to work with a company that has an offering for small business and has designed it that way.”

Telus is currently the only provider that offers a VoIP service for the enterprise, said Fox.

“Most of the VoIP services that are advertised are consumer,” she said. “They haven’t been scaled up yet. The ones that are advertised, if you try to buy them as an enterprise customer, the features are not available yet consistently across all the VoIP providers.”

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