Digium/Asterisk Embraces Fax

Reports of the death of faxing have been greatly exaggerated. Despite e-mail, instant messaging, SMS texting, Twittering, et al., many small businesses still rely on good ol’ graphic reproductions sent via phone line. For users of the Asterisk open-source IP PBX, that has been a problem. Until now, Asterisk hasn’t played well with fax.

Now Asterisk creator Digium Inc. says it is ready to mend its ways. It has introduced Fax For Asterisk, a software tool that enables Asterisk PBXs to send and receive fax documents over both legacy PSTN and VoIP connections.

In the past, Asterisk shops have had to cobble together their own fax solutions. Some have chosen to maintain one or more separate phones lines in support of analog fax machines, outside the Asterisk PBX. Others have received fax calls into Asterisk, only to forward those calls to some other destination outside of Asterisk.

Some of these solutions have proven effective, but hardly efficient. With an integrated fax solution, “it cuts down on the need for a lot of these other components,” said Malcolm Davenport, product manager at Digium.

Fax For Asterisk is free for installations requiring only one fax session at a time. A multiple-session license costs $39.99 via the Digium web store and also is available through reseller channels.

With little experience in the fax realm, and little interest in supporting users who might encounter issues, Digium turned to an outside partner for support. It licensed its fax fundamentals from Commetrex, basing its choice largely on that company’s stable track record. “Commetrex fax modems have been used commercially since the mid-1990s. There have been a whole host of people who have licensed from them,” Davenport said.

According to the Digium press release, Fax For Asterisk interoperates with standards-compliant fax machines connected to Asterisk 1.4 and 1.6 on x86 Linux systems. It provides low-speed PSTN faxing via DAHDI-compatible telephony interface cards as well as VoIP faxing to T.38-compatible SIP end points and service providers. Fax For Asterisk operates at speeds up to 14.4kbps and supports V.17, V.27, and V.29 fax modems.

The company notes that Fax For Asterisk is supported only on x86 Linux environments; x86_64 is not currently supported. Users of x86_64 systems should install 32-bit compatibility modes in order to use Fax For Asterisk.

Davenport said the new fax capability may be adopted by business from small to large. He noted that some industries may be especially drawn to the product, given their continued reliance on fax technology.

“Fax is still very commonly used by a lot of people. In the legal and medical professions, fax is incredibly important. For anybody dealing with contracts fax is still an acceptable medium for legal documents,” whereas e-mail often is not recognized as a binding communication, he said. “Maybe somebody sends you a quote or you need to send somebody a quote. People are doing all of those things.”

Digium first put out the word that it would be introducing fax capabilities in February 2009, when it announced the arrival of Switchvox 4.0, the latest iteration of its Asterisk-based IP PBX. Since then the fax product has been available in beta, with only minor tweaks having been made between beta and this month’s official release.

Digium is betting its embrace of Commetrex technology could help to establish evolving fax protocols, specifically the T.38 standard.

When faxes travel across IP networks in the form of regular VoIP calls, the end result is highly unstable, Davenport said. T.38 makes it possible for a fax to be packaged as data and delivered across data networks in a much more reliable form. Digium’s adoption of T.38 is a step in support of interoperability. “We think asterisk is going to help drive the adoption of T.38,” Davenport said.

Meanwhile, the introduction of fax capability falls in line with Digium’s overarching drive toward unified communications. In recent months the company has released a speech-to-text component, as well as a text-to-speech product.

“This all is part of the whole unified communications thing, being able to bring together all of the different mediums through which people have their communications,” Davenport said.

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