The SIP Forum and the i3 Forum Team to Tame FoIP

The SIP Forum was initially formed primarily to evangelize for the adoption of the session initiation protocol—SIP—in IP communications. “That’s done,” Forum managing director Marc Robins told Enterprise VoIPplanet. “Now the mission is to get it working properly.”

Recently, the i3 Forum, an association of some 37 international IP communications carriers, made a joint announcement with SIP Forum that the two bodies are henceforth going to coordinate their efforts directed at promoting interoperability of SIP-based services.

The initial target: Fax over IP.

“The use of fax worldwide is huge, and contrary to popular belief, it has not shrunk, especially in the U.S.,” Robins stated, “with HIPAA and SOX regulations and financial industry requirements producing an ever-increasing document flood.”

Fax over IP, however, has been implemented far less reliably than voice. It was viewed (incorrectly) as a dated technology and just “didn’t get as much attention as voice,” according to Robins.

“There are problems inherent in the network itself that impacts fax transmission in ways that voice is not as affected — voice can tolerate a remarkable amount of latency, for example. But many of the kinds of impairments that voice is okay with, fax is not,” Robins explained. And then there’s the complex issue of handshake negotiating, where sending and receiving devices have to agree on protocols, among other things.

The first step in fixing the problem will be isolating and understanding the impairments that are getting in the way of reliable fax transmission via IP and SIP. This means extensive testing and data collection—which is one of the ways in which the new i3 Forum partnership will help advance the goal.

“The SIP Forum’s got a good representation of domestic providers—especially with the cable companies,” Robins said. We’re in touch with many other carriers, who are working in our task groups. And now we have an international group of service providers to work with outside the U.S.”

“Borders don’t mean a thing any more,” Robins said. “An IP call can travel anywhere. It involves operators around the world. Especially with fax—because of all the communication between business centers in the U.S., Europe, Asia. Fax is used constantly; it’s very common. So, there’s got to be a meeting of the minds between carriers of all different regions of the world.”

Once the testing parameters and methodology are worked out—the work of a month or two, according to Robins, the i3 Forum members will begin testing, making significant numbers of intra-network fax transmissions (to and from each other’s networks), and collecting the resulting data.

With detailed data in hand, the process of coming up with fixes and consistent deployment parameters can begin. Robins estimates the whole FoIP project can be brought to completion “in well under a year—probably seven to nine months.”

The importance of bringing reliability to IP-based faxing goes beyond just the cost saving and convenience—huge improvements though these be.

“In the big push to unified communications, every piece of that puzzle has to be reliable before the package really makes sense—including fax,” Robins told Enterprise VoIPplanet. “That’s a problem a lot of people are having with the whole concept of UC. There’s a fear of unreliability.”

“But whereas many people looked at fax as an ugly stepchild, in the SIP Forum we saw it as low-hanging fruit. We thought ‘This shouldn’t be too onerous to figure out. We should be able to do fax over IP reliably.’ And there’s no reason we can’t.”

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