Has VoIP Hit Yet?

Experts say 2005/2006 will be good years for IP-based telephony, though hurdles remain to be cleared.

By Jim Wagner | Posted Jun 6, 2005
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CHICAGO -- It can't be a good sign when one of the lead men overseeing your company's VoIP efforts locks his IP-based phone behind closed doors when guests visit.

But that's the case for Earl Turner, senior director of VoIP technology for Time Warner Telecom, who was one of several experts on hand to discuss the state of the VoIP nation at Supercomm, the carrier industry's trade show, here Monday.

While Turner said the industry is poised for a big change with the advent of IP-based telephony, challenges remain for the technology, which is supposed to take the Ma Bell phone network of the last century into the 21st century.

One of the challenges lies in the features provided by VoIP providers. That doesn't include next-generation services like IPTV or video conferencing, Turner said, but fundamental telephone services like call forwarding, caller ID, three-way conferencing and the like.

The problem, he said, is the technology used in switch-based telephone systems has to be revamped on IP-based technology, using established industry standards, before it can be deployed on a network.

"If you think that you can de-aggregate the switch and put it back together in two to three years, or five years, it's not going to happen," he said.

The reason he won't let his VoIP phone near his dinner guests, he said, is because his VoIP provider is located in the next state, and if they needed to call 911, they'd get emergency services from that state, not where he lives.

The Federal Communications Commission is trying to work on regulations surrounding enhanced 911, though for the time being the agency is worried more about ensuring all VoIP providers make the service available.

According to numbers provided by the Internet Packet Communications Consortium (IPCC), the second-biggest obstacle hindering the growth of VoIP is government regulations.

It's slightly less than the No. 1 headache facing VoIP providers, voice quality, which is an obstacle providers have been dealing with since the first IP-based phones arrived.

Enterprise customers won't upgrade their antiquated, though stable, plain old telephone system networks for a packet-based network if they can't get solid service-level agreements, said Hugh Kelly, president and CEO of VoIP software developer West Ridge Networks.

Customers know all about IP networks, he said, and the problems that occur when a router or server goes down. They don't want to take that chance with their customer support centers.

Carriers, however, are just as nervous, Kelly continued. In an ATM-based network, he said, 50 percent of customer complaints come from outside the provider's network. In a VoIP network, where the call can be bounced between several servers before finally reaching the other end, that risk is compounded.

"Carriers are terrified of that 50 percent," he said.

Software, he said, will help alleviate some of that heartburn on both sides. Kelly calls the process sectionalizing.

With it, carriers monitor the VoIP call from end to end and are able to determine whether the packet loss did indeed come from the carrier or is the result of some intermediate step.

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