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Voice over what??

This article looks at the different offerings available and highlights the need for companies to carefully consider all options before taking the VoIP plunge.

John Blake

The surge in interest in VoIP
Voice over IP has been around for years, but it is only in the last 12 months that it has started to gain traction, moving beyond the early adopters to mainstream customers beginning to consider it as a viable alternative to traditional telephony. The impetus to upgrade to VoIP is coming from many different angles, not least from customer demand and manufacturer and service provider commitment to the new generation of voice services. The fact that it is now a 'hot issue', reflects the coming of the 'all IP' phenomenon in the corporate sector and the growth of broadband among smaller businesses and the residential market. So is this renewed enthusiasm for the technology proof that VoIP has thrown off its old reputation as an unreliable and second-rate voice service? The answer is that it is certainly starting to, but key to this lies in raising awareness that VoIP is not a stand-alone technology, but dependent upon the network that delivers it.

The platform for VoIP
Despite its name, VoIP can be run over a number of different network technologies. To illustrate this point, let's look in more detail at the different types of network VoIP can be delivered over and why companies are opting to implement them.

The IP era
The trend towards an 'all IP' communications infrastructure is well underway. Established network providers around the world are investing in IP and looking to new revenue streams in the digital networked economy through new networked IT services. BT recently announced its own forward-looking plans to create a 21st Century network where all traffic, even that which is initiated on the PSTN, is routed over an IP network. It aims to have this up and running by 2008. In the corporate sector, many large international companies already have an IP Virtual Private Network (VPN) in place. These networks enable swifter and more flexible communications and are designed to carry advanced IP applications. They also have Quality of Service (QoS) technology, which ensures that mission-critical traffic, such as IP voice packets, is not disrupted in the Local Area Network (LAN) by other less important traffic like e-mail. Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) based IP VPNs have Class of Service (CoS) technology, which categorizes traffic by importance in to separate channels and ensures that as traffic travels on to the Wide Area Network (WAN) it continues to be prioritized. So, for companies with an IP platform in place, is the decision to switch to VoIP simply a 'no brainer'?

Running all traffic over a single converged network and thus having a single point of failure brings its own complexities. However, increasingly companies are considering the productivity, time and cost saving benefits to outweigh the risks of network downtime. To counter this risk, managed network services will include resilience planning, and other measures designed to eliminate single points of failure.

One example of an organization already reaping the benefits of having a single network for all its communications streams is business information company, Datamonitor. It upgraded its network to a managed MPLS-based IP VPN for both its voice and data traffic between key sites in the U.K. and U.S. By implementing this managed service, Datamonitor was freed from the need to invest heavily in, or run, its own infrastructure and has cut the costs of calls between these sites by 50%.

But the switch to VoIP over a dedicated IP network is not just being made once the corporate data network has been upgraded. Having carried out a technology refresh at the end of 1999, to ensure their infrastructure would not be hit by potential 'millennium bugs', many companies are nearing the end of their five-year PBX lifecycles. They are therefore faced with the question of whether to renew their standard telephone exchange or to invest in an IP PBX, a more 'future proof' solution that supports next generation IP telephony. With pressure from manufacturers, who are increasingly announcing plans to phase out the production of traditional PBXs to focus on IP products, the impetus to move to VoIP is an important driver behind the decision by companies to migrate to a converged network.

Convergence solutions, pure IPT, and hosted and managed options
Once the decision to implement VoIP via a dedicated IP network has been made, the options open to companies are twofold: gradual migration via a convergence VoIP product or complete migration to a pure IP telephony environment:

  • Convergence VoIP products connect traditional digital TDM phones via a PBX to a gateway, which turns TDM speech into IP for transport over the IP network. For many companies, gradual migration to VoIP via an IP gateway makes financial sense since it does not require huge upfront investment in expensive IP equipment. It also offers the company's employees the chance to adapt culturally to IP voice communications, a consideration that is not to be underestimated since for many the notion of picking up a phone and not hearing a ring tone can take time to come to terms with!

  • Pure IPT is the most advanced and future-proof form of VoIP, where all elements are IP based. This involves overhauling a company's telephony infrastructure and installing new IP equipment – including the applications, PBXs and the phones themselves. Pure IPT supports advanced IP communications such as video conferencing, file sharing and white boarding (providing the right software is in place). It is also the most forward-looking form of the technology enabling companies that embrace it to derive competitive advantage. For organizations with a mainly office-based work force, including call centers, where the quality of voice and video communications are imperative to the success of their business, full migration to pure IPT is a sound choice.

    Abbey, one of the largest UK high street banks, recently installed BT's pure IPT solution Multimedia VoIP (MMVoIP), a hosted service that incorporates Cisco technology, and expects to save millions of pounds over the five years of the contract by putting telephony and data over a single network. MMVoIP is an example of an IPT product, which is hosted off-site by a carrier using IP Centrex. By using a hosted service, companies can avoid investing in an IP PBX since this is hosted on the service provider's site. For companies without a skilled IP networking department making large-scale IPT migrations, a hosted service is to be recommended.

    Voice over DSL broadband: the other route to VoIP
    But IP is not the only technology that is luring customers to VoIP. DSL broadband in the form of Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (SDSL) or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) also enables cost-effective transmission of voice over a data network. The UK alone already has 6 million broadband subscribers and the success of broadband voice providers like Skype and Vonage, and indeed products such as BT Communicator, have helped to raise the profile of this flavor of the technology. BT Communicator takes the concept a stage further by allowing customers to manage their communications centrally in a variety of ways, such as voice, email and text, switching easily from one to another at no extra cost.

    In addition, we are seeing consumer market technology pushing functionality into the corporate space - many corporate workers are discovering new VoIP technologies at home and are expecting to see the same functionality at work. For many small and medium sized businesses, particularly those whose workforce is not predominantly made up of office workers or whose business model does not rely on voice communications, broadband VoIP is a good choice. It is very easy to install, requires minimal investment, offers a converged environment that allows employees to use voice, Instant Messenger and Internet at the same time and can achieve impressive cost savings on voice calls. There are a number of enterprise specific broadband services available. BT has just launched its own Business Broadband Voice service, which enables customers to make Internet calls from any broadband Internet connection, keeping the same number whether they're in the office or working remotely.

    Companies considering broadband VoIP, however, should be aware that it does not offer traffic prioritization capability and its voice quality can diminish if multiple users make calls at the same time.

    The choice of voice
    So to summarize, transmission of voice over broadband and IP networks looks set to become prevalent in corporate communications. Ensuring the quality and efficiency of these communications is key to maintaining a competitive edge in today's digital networked economy. With all the variants of VoIP technology available, choosing the right solution is a critical task. Companies looking to upgrade to packetized voice must first consider what network they need to guarantee quality calls are delivered and then carefully choose between convergence or pure IPT solutions, DIY or fully managed options. Making an informed decision will ensure that their corporate communications requirements are not merely met, but superceded.

    About the author:
    John Blake is head of hosted IP telephony at BT Global Services, BT's services and solutions division. John is responsible for the strategy and development of BT Global Services' Voice over IP (VoIP) portfolio in both the UK and across Europe.

    John has worked for BT for over 30 years and has been responsible for the successful launches of Surftalk, BT Netchat and BT Global Services hosted IP telephony services, Multimedia VoIP and VoIP Port.

    Prior to joining BT Global Services in April 2001, John spent six years in Product Development/Management where he developed from concept, BT's Core platform Centrex and VPN products, FeatureLine and FeatureNet Embark.
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