Try, try again: Internet Fax is back

Left for dead by the likes of UUnet, GTE Internetworking and PSINet, there's new blood bringing life to Internet fax - and this time it may stick around longer than the time it takes to, well, send a fax.

Left for dead by the likes of UUnet, GTE Internetworking and PSINet, there's new blood bringing life to Internet fax - and this time it may stick around longer than the time it takes to, well, send a fax.

Closing out February, telecommunications behemoth Cable & Wireless signed a deal with Open Port Technology in which Cable & Wireless will adopt Open Port's IP LaunchPad, an enhanced Internet Protocol messaging platform, as the groupwide technology standard to deliver enhanced IP messaging services such as fax-over-IP (FoIP). And, according to Robert Flood, chief technology officer at Cable & Wireless Global Operations, the deal is part of a plan to roll out entirely new IP-based voice and data services.

Internet fax, according to the latest numbers from International Data Corp., is a booming market; total worldwide IP fax minutes are expected to rise from 71 million minutes in 1997 to 7.7 billion minutes in 2002 - a compound annual growth rate of 156 percent.

This is quite a change from the market perception of just a few months ago. In the past year, UUnet has ceased selling its UUfax IP-based fax services and left the operation to parent company MCI WorldCom. GTE Internetworking and PSINet have met similar fates.

Which begs the question: "So what happened?"

After executives went back to marketing school, they discovered no one was beating down the doors for IP fax, said Peter Davidson, fax analyst at IDC. In a sense, one of the problems with selling FoIP was that no one was marketing FoIP. Who comes to see a movie if no one knows it's playing?

Indeed, long-distance rates have become so competitive in America, and fax machines have become so efficient, that the time and cost it takes to send a fax through the public voice network isn't much more than what it would cost on the Internet. Also, most faxes, even on the Internet, have to be terminated to the public network at some point, either on the sending or receiving end, so there's still a charge from the telephone network.

In marketing FoIP to U.S. customers, however, cost isn't really part of the equation. Instead, the focus should be on turning employees' desktops or laptops into fax-enabled machines. That flexibility is attractive to U.S. businesses. And with the advent of full messaging solutions and continued strong international communications traffic, FoIP is again finding a receptive audience.

The real advent of FoIP, however, will be when unified messaging finally takes hold. FoIP will be only part of an entire middleware solution that allows companies to communicate with employees, partners and customers in any form they choose. For example, in the deal between Cable & Wireless and Open Port, FoIP will only be the first enhanced application that Cable & Wireless deploys on its global IP backbone, with voice-over-IP likely to follow.

Another factor in the FoIP resurgence is international demand. While the cost of long-distance in the U.S. is just pennies per minute, Asian and European markets - especially those with dollar-per-minute long-distance rates - are clamoring for FoIP.

Essentially, Davidson said, the inevitability of IP's global proliferation will drive the services that will traverse its network. It's not exactly a Hollywood ending, but sequels usually pale in comparison to the dramas of the first film.

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