Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

VoIP overview

Do you have an IP telephony business case?

“Many businesses don’t think about their phones,” says Rick Moran, vice president, Cisco Unified Communications. “With all the demands on today’s businesses, would they want to spend money to replace something that works just fine, thank you very much?”

That line of reasoning did not hold for consumers, drawn in droves to the promise of lower-cost voice service. Many businesses, however, still hang back. “Four or five years ago, businesses had invested heavily in legacy technologies that they weren’t about to write off their balance sheets,” says William Bangert, senior vice president of technology, services and business development in Bell Canada’s Enterprise Division. “At the time, functionality and quality was also superior to IP telephony.” Bangert asserts that neither argument holds water today.

Martin Phelps, global portfolio manager for AT&T Global Network Services Canada, fields requests from customers to help them make business cases for IP telephony. “There’s a substantial investment to be made up front,” he explains. “Justifying that outlay can be quite hard.”

For example, to gain TDM reliability from IP telephony, it must be set up with the same protection used for other data network components. “To build various levels of redundancy and resiliency into the network costs money,” says Robert Tasker, vice-president of business networks product management for Telus.

Phelps notes a common difference between data and voice service budgets that can make the business case difficult to build. “In most large enterprises, the data organization, and its budget, is centralized.”

Not so for voice. “It’s more distributed. Facilities managers in different offices often own telephony budgets. There’s little coordination and management overview. That’s why collection of telephony cost information can be a painful exercise.”

Meanwhile, carriers and equipment vendors work against perceptions created by free VoIP services such as Skype. “VoIP is just transmission of voice packets from endpoint to endpoint, with no features,” says Jay Lassman, research director for Gartner, Inc. “IP telephony is VoIP with features and quality of service over private, managed networks.”

Tasker notes that carriers commonly go outside their own networks to assure telephony QoS. Citing Telus’s MPLS-based interconnection with Verizon in the US as an example, he says: “It allows us to offer the same quality of service beyond our boundaries.”

VoIP QoS rules apply to corporate networks too, says Dave Zwicker. The vice president of marketing for Viola Networks, a provider of VoIP management and optimizing software, notes that firms must understand IP traffic in order to manage the peaks.

“Voice is sensitive to lack of bandwidth,” says Zwicker. “If there’s one per cent packet loss, you notice it. If there’s one millisecond of delay, you notice it.”

Now that IP telephony services are business-grade, toll-bypass savings aren’t the lure they were before long-distance costs plunged. However, citing a research study of 1,200 users, AT&T’s Phelps says long-term operating costs decrease by 45% after the switch to IP telephony.

For example, moves, adds and changes (MACs) become simpler. Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, says that with TDM, every MAC calls for either dedicated telephony specialists or hundreds of dollars in outsourcing costs.

“With IP PBXs, all you need is a minute of programming to say ‘This is Mark’s phone.’ Any time Mark moves, he just takes his phone and plugs it into an Ethernet jack,” says Tauschek.

Such flexibility carries over into the outside world. “I live in northern California but I have a Vonage account with Los Angeles and London, England telephone numbers,” says Moran.

That kind of flexibility also facilitates Spam over Internet Telephony (SPIT). “There are devices that can sequence a whole bunch of IP addresses,” says Phelps, “which could be phones. They keep trying until they hit one that rings.”

Of special concern is “vishing”, a VoIP-based form of phishing. Secure Computing reported a scam that sought people’s bank account details and credit card numbers. Since it’s easier to spoof a number local to the victim using VoIP, vishing may veil scammers with more credibility than traditional phone scams.

“There can be security challenges, no doubt, but they are surmountable,” says Tauschek.

When businesses ask Lassman how they should proceed, he answers “Slowly. Use a phased introduction. Get as much investment protection as you can from your current system. If an opportunity arises with a new site, try it there.”

“The real value of voice over IP goes well beyond finding cheap ways to carry traffic. It’s about performance, flexibility and agility,” says Tasker.

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