Minacom, which builds service level test systems for telcos and cablecos such as Bell and Rogers, released a report based on customer data that measures hundreds of calls each month. The study was a follow up 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.

The study, which was conducted by Brix Networks, wasn’t clear in terms of exactly what it was studying, he said.

For example, the Brix report did not specify that it evaluated computer-to-computer or VoIP services such as 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 was considered unacceptable, while one in 10 worldwide was considered

unacceptable. Eighty-five per cent of respondents said that more than 85 per cent of VoIP calls exceed the average Public Service Telephone Network (PSTN) quality.

Poor quality Internet phone service stems from several issues, including 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 that as a distorted signal.”

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

Roberta Fox, an analyst with Fox Group, is an early adopter of VoIP technology and is currently running several 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.

“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 stress the importance of ensuring the network is able to handle the extra traffic that VoIP creates.

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

Joe Parent, vice-president of marketing and business development with 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.”

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,” he said. “That allows us to provide enterprise-level quality.”

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