Hold the IP phone

Some enterprises may not be ready for the cost and complexity of internet Protocol phones, but they're still drawn to the savings and features of voice-over-IP systems.

Some enterprises may not be ready for the cost and complexity of internet Protocol phones, but they're still drawn to the savings and features of voice-over-IP systems.

ZDNet Australia - VoIP without IP phones? It's a route that a growing group of equipment makers and service providers believes makes sense. There are trade-offs, of course: Some of the VoIP features unique to IP phones are lost, but leveraging existing equipment, and routing data and voice together, are money-savers.

"We see this as having both a technical and strategic advantage for service providers," says Jeff Gustafson, senior director of corporate marketing at Vpacket Communications, which has developed an unusual voice/data router (VDR) that leverages enterprises' existing phones and private branch exchange (PBX) gear.

Vpacket's VDR can be considered part of the family of integrated access devices that includes IP-enabled routers or IP-PBXs. While most companies have developed IADs that are outgrowths of platforms, Vpacket has created its device from the "ground up" to incorporate a simple, upgradable, quick-to-deploy solution. The company is marketing the device to service providers or integrated communications providers, which in turn sell to small and midsized businesses.

"They are the first ones with this kind of approach," says Larry Hettick, vice president of consulting at TeleChoice. "But Vpacket's not going to be the last, that's for sure. There's a huge amount of interest in this and in VoIP in general, either from carriers or enterprises." Vpacket competes with makers of voice-enabled routers and switches, such as Cisco Systems, and with IP-PBX vendors such as Avaya and Nortel Networks.

Click here for more stories on VoIP Kathy Meier, vice president of marketing at softswitch developer VocalData, says Vpacket's approach is attractive to the "price-sensitive" customer that doesn't want to scrap a lot of existing equipment and buy costly IP phones. Enterprises can use the analogue phones they have, and also integrate existing PBXes and key systems.

"Vpacket allows you to offer IP services to customers without displacing infrastructure. From what I've seen in the last six months, this segment of the market is becoming more vocal and the demand for these services is becoming more important," Meier says. VocalData has announced a partnership with Vpacket, and is completing interoperability testing.

Vpacket, a privately held networking company founded in 1999, launched its series of VDRs in December, and has 30 to 40 customers in trials, Gustafson says.

The VDRs can be installed in small or midsized businesses, branch offices, large buildings or business campuses. The VDRs are placed in the company's telephone closet, just like traditional routers or PBXes would be. Wiring, handsets and local area network equipment can remain, because the traffic isn't travelling over the LAN. Converged voice and data travel over DSL or T1 (1.5-megabit-per-second)/E1 (2.048-Mbps) lines. Each VDR can support 12 to 24 voice ports.

The VDRs prioritise voice packets ahead of data packets, and incorporate a quality-of-service (QOS) measurement and management system. A management server allows the service provider to handle software revisions for all of the VDRs at an enterprise, an easier system than updating individual IP phones. New voice and data services can be provisioned easily, often by customers, through Web interfaces to the softswitch. Softswitches can provide a variety of interfaces, such as customisation of new access via PC or laptop while travelling.

If power fails, the system includes a single backup telephone port that connects to the public switched telephone network, to which calls are forwarded automatically. VoIP phones are useless when power fails.

Depending on the setting, VDRs can save enterprises 74 percent to 94 percent over the cost of IP telephone implementation at present-day IP phone prices, according to Roberta Parker, Vpacket's business development manager. Many experts predict that the price of IP phones, which now cost US$150 to US$700, will drop eventually, but Vpacket estimates that even if phone costs fall to US$250, its VDRs still would be 45 percent to 85 percent cheaper than IP phones.

"We see this approach as having both tactical and strategic advantages for service providers," Gustafson says. Providers can offer more services, while both providers and users save money. "And it's not a stopgap product. This has a very long life," he says. The Vpacket system doesn't preclude adding IP phones later, Gustafson notes. The company has included much of the IP switching needed, and is developing a proxy firewall for Session Initiation Protocol.

Jim Zeitlin, Vpacket's chief technology officer, says much of the company's interest comes from competitive local exchange carriers and larger telecoms--virtually any carrier that has built a LAN and is eyeing profitable services such as voice, video and virtual private networks (VPNs). "That's really the driving force in our market today," Zeitlin says.

Not everyone is convinced that a "partial" approach will win in the VoIP arena. Keeping existing phones means enterprises lose some of the more advanced features specific to IP phones, such as displays.

A. Saied Seghatoleslami, director of strategy and business planning at communications giant Avaya, believes most companies want a full range of IP phone features, such as unified messaging, mobility and telecommuter solutions, and simplified handling of phone calls. "Businesses, at least in the US and Western Europe, don't put analogue phones on the desks," Seghatoleslami says.

Avaya, however, does make IADs, and also sells a voice-over-DSL product that is aimed at smaller businesses.

Ralph Hayon, president and CEO of Congruency, a provider of carrier-grade software and IP phones, agrees that there is demand for IADs, but that IP phones may offer a better business plan. "There's clearly a market for IADs. There are clearly those who want a minimum of change in their environment," Hayon says. But service providers that want to move from a "per-line" business model to the more lucrative "per-seat" model would be better off placing IP phones in the workplace, he believes. An IAD "doesn't get you to the desktop," he says.

Hayon believes that even small and midsized businesses can take advantage of IP phone solutions without a lot of hassle. Congruency sells IP phones and a Netopia box with a VPN solution. It configures the box with the customer's IP and gateway addresses, and ships the system ready for plug-in. Callers using VoIP don't want to sacrifice quality for savings. And they don't have to, according to several observers. Ways to manage and measure QOS are going into virtually all VoIP systems.

Vpacket's VDR, for example, gives voice packets priority over data. Its QOS management systems check each call's clarity. The testing lets service providers review the QOS delivered to a business customer at any given time, and also will quantify the severity of any problem. This approach reduces the need for service visits to customer premises, because quality issues can be pinpointed and resolved remotely.

Vpacket's QOS yardstick sits where the enterprise system mates to the rest of the network, Gustafson says. He believes that's a more cost-effective approach than having to incorporate QOS into every IP phone. "We think, generally, with broadband access and a good IP network, the perceived quality by the user will be identical to the existing phone system," Vpacket's Zeitlin says.

So, convince me
VoIP still has a consumer battle to win, some telecom executives say. "I think, technically, [quality concerns] have been put to rest, but from a perceptual view, some people aren't there yet," Congruency's Hayon says.

"The problem is getting the word out," says Michelle Blank, vice president of galactic marketing at RADVision, a provider of VoIP products and technology. Latency and delay are "no longer an issue. Some would even argue that digital audio over IP is even better quality than voice over a circuit network," Blank says.

Compression and code devices have evolved to help bring high-quality voice communications onto the LAN, VocalData's Meier says. In the backbone, "next-gen" steps such as QOS, better routers and high-capacity switches are being installed to improve the flow of data and voice. "They're doing Voice 101," Meier says.

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