Getting the packet deal

There is no longer any question: Voice over Internet Protocol is now mainstream. ABI Research Inc. of Oyster Bay, N.Y., estimates vendors shipped US$5.5 million worth of IP private branch exchange equipment and almost 200,000 IP phones last year. Michael Arden, principal analyst at ABI, said his

firm predicts worldwide annual revenues of US$73 to $74 million from IP PBX shipments and unit shipments of about 77 million IP phones.

There is another piece to the VoIP market: hosted solutions where a service provider owns the equipment and provides a service to the user. ABI projects worldwide revenues of $50 billion in this sector by 2010.

While business is warming to voice over IP, it will be a long time before anyone tears out a perfectly good phone system just to put in VoIP. It is typically being installed either in new businesses or locations, or else where old equipment had to be replaced anyway.

Wurth Canada Ltd. a unit of a German equipment, materials and chemicals firm, had an aging Nortel Networks Corp. phone system that “”wasn’t able to grow any more,”” says Richard Kipin, Wurth Canada’s IT manager. Kipin looked at conventional phone systems, but the less costly ones didn’t give Wurth room to grow, and those he considered big enough for the long term were too expensive. So the company chose VoIP from Avaya Canada Inc.

While VoIP is increasingly likely to be considered when the time comes to shop for a new phone system, the number of organizations doing that is still relatively modest.

Arden says a significant number of enterprises replaced phone systems prior to 2000, fearing that older equipment might have trouble with dates in which the year didn’t begin with 19. Phone system replacements have been slow since then, and that will continue slowing migration to VoIP for a few years yet, Arden suggests.

Ripping out existing systems is not the only option, though, and Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader at Avaya Inc. in Toronto, says customers are becoming more aware of this fact. Adopting VoIP isn’t necessarily all or nothing, he says — one can run IP to the building and keep traditional infrastructure inside, or switch to VoIP in areas where it makes the most sense while leaving others alone.

In VoIP’s early days, concerns about voice quality and network readiness were a major stumbling block. Those concerns have largely been addressed, and it’s clear that on a network properly configured for the purpose, voice can work well. Kipin, for instance, says he found the voice quality of VoIP “”phenomenal.””

Set all devices to full duplex if you’re running voice

But quality of service (QoS) features that can give priority to voice packets are important. Jim Schroeder, information officer at truck dealership Peterbilt Pacific in Vancouver, knew that when his firm implemented VoIP about two years ago, but had to wait about six months for his Internet service provider to install QoS routers at some branch offices. Until the routers were installed, large data transfers degraded the voice quality of some calls, Schroeder said.

Kelly Daniels, chief technology officer and founder of Vancouver-based Apparent Networks Inc., says voice is less forgiving of network configuration errors than data. Probably the most common error is duplex mismatches. Ideally, all devices should be set to full duplex, and for voice they should at least all be set consistently. Often this isn’t the case, and the effect is hardly noticeable in data networks, but the resulting packet loss takes a noticeable toll on voice quality.

Poor connections, dirty connectors and faulty device drivers are among other problems that can show up as poor voice quality, Daniels adds.

Nor is voice quality the only issue, observes Jeff Coomans, product and services manager for advanced applications at NextiraOne, a Houston-based communications service provider. People expect phones to work in a power failure, so VoIP may require uninterruptible power supplies in wiring closets with Power Over Ethernet technology to supply power to IP phones. Enhanced 911 service has been a concern — phones should be able to report their location to an emergency services operator. This is possible today, says Coomans, but care must be taken to keep the information up to date when moving phones.

And, Coomans says, “”voice is an application that forces you to start closely monitoring and managing your network.””

Daniels agrees. Apparent offers network management software called appareNet that Daniels says views the network as the application will and helps identify problems that will affect voice quality. Tools of this sort can help VoIP adopters iron the bugs out of their networks.

“”I won’t say it takes a lot,”” Fleming says. “”It takes a lot more than we’re used to. In traditional data networks, we have done what’s called red light, green light management.”” Either it worked, or it didn’t. To support VoIP, “”we want to see percentage utilization and we want to set a threshold.”” Network managers need to be aware of issues like latency and jitter, and they need to be sensitive to the different needs of voice traffic.

On pure data networks, Fleming says, network technicians think nothing of just pushing the power button to reboot a misbehaving router. Some data packets are dropped, they are re-sent, and users don’t notice. But if voice is running over that network, “”you’ve likely just kicked 30 to 40 people out of your call centre queue, and those people may have been in that queue to buy something.””

People from the data side understand the underlying technology, Fleming concludes, but have something to learn from the voice side. In early VoIP implementations, Fleming says, “”we used to fire the voice guy because that was the return on investment.”” VoIP users are now learning they still need the voice experts’ experience. “”They suddenly become applications specialists,”” Coomans says.

As the VoIP market develops, more options are appearing for users interested in the technology. One is turning to an outside provider.

Major telecommunications carriers such as Bell Canada and Telus Corp. have introduced their own VoIP offerings for business. They are also eyeing the consumer and small business markets, where they would be competing with upstart providers such as Vonage Corp., Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc. and Calgary-based Shift Networks Inc.

Bell Canada targets business customers with its Managed IP Services, which includes voice capabilities. Paul Rowe, Bell’s vice-president of enterprise marketing, says many Managed IP customers are the same organizations that were previously candidates for Centrex service — essentially a carrier-operated substitute for a PBX.

For small and medium-sized businesses, Rowe says, a hosted IP service may appeal because the business simply hasn’t the resources or know-how to manage its own phone system. He maintains Bell’s Managed IP Service can compete on cost with an in-house solution in any organization, with the economics becoming more favourable to the hosted approach as the installation grows.

Bell is also offering its Centrex customers the option of a gradual migration to VoIP. They can keep their existing dialing plans, Rowe says, while installing some IP phones and mixing IP with traditional technology.

Meanwhile, startup VoIP carriers are moving upmarket. Primus offers services for small to medium-sized businesses as well as consumers. Vonage currently has services suited to small and home offices with a handful of lines, says Joe Parent, vice-president of marketing and business development, and is readying a service aimed at businesses with five to about 125 lines. Shift’s service is suitable for customers with up to 100 lines, says Trent Johnsen, the company’s founder, president and chief executive, though he believes the primary market will be in the five-to-50-line range.

At Avaya — which both sells IP PBXs and provides managed services — Fleming says managed services are growing. That’s largely because of the flexibility they offer. For instance, says Fleming, a customer whose staffing needs vary seasonally can add support for more call centre agents at peak seasons and pay for the added capacity only when needed.

With options proliferating, telecom users will increasingly wonder not whether VoIP is in their future, but what approach to take.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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