As voice over IP completes its first decade, the technology has become firmly established in corporate voice, data and video communications networks. Now the eyes of the VOIP community are turning to what might be the next big thing on the horizon—fixed-mobile convergence, or the ability of cell phones and VOIP devices to send and receive voice and video calls.
"[FMC] is a good, cool thing. I hope it happens in our lifetime, but if it does, it means we have a secret sauce for seamless roaming," Jeff Pulver, chairman of Pulvermedia, said here Dec. 5, during his keynote at the VON Enterprise conference sponsored by his company.
Pulver said that although a person can use a VOIP phone from a Wi-Fi hot spot, its generally not possible to move from one hot spot to another without initiating a new call.
Kathryn Weldon, an analyst at Current Analysis, said telecommunications carriers are building IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) into their networks to handle IP traffic. "In the long term, [VOIP calls] will be transparent and seamless between fixed and wireless networks because it will run across uniform IP networks in the infrastructure of the carriers," Weldon said. But outside regional trials, such as one in the Seattle area, commercial services are not ready yet. "Its really early. There are not fixed-mobile convergence services for the enterprise in the U.S. today," she said.
Vendors are scrambling to make the vision of FMC a reality. BridgePort Networks makes mobile VOIP products for use by telecommunications carriers in provisioning services. Siemens Enterprise Communications produces devices that support FMC.
"We are pursuing FMC in multiple forms, including handsets and from a unified communications perspective," said Ralph Riley, global manager for value creation at Siemens Enterprise Communications, in Brighton, Mich. Unified communications can afford a user a single identity on different communications devices.
In a demonstration of the current state of convergence, Pulver at the VON Enterprise show initiated a video call from his laptop PC to the cell phone of a worker at the offices of Radvision, in Tel Aviv, Israel. The call worked, and Pulvers Radvision contact appeared in a video screen, although the video quality was not completely lifelike.
Whether FMC happens any time soon, plenty of companies are taking advantage of not only VOIPs lower costs but also its ability to integrate voice with data applications, several IT pros at the VON Enterprise conference said.
Mark Bailey, manager of IS for Thiele Kaolin Company, a producer of clay for industrial products and cosmetics in Sandersville, Ga., said the most important benefit of a corporate move to VOIP was one many might overlook: improved disaster recovery and business continuity. Thiele Kaolin achieved this, Bailey said during a VON presentation, by using redundant call managers to reroute calls. Thiele Kaolin in 2004 replaced a 15-year-old PBX with a Cisco Systems AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) device, which, for an investment of $235,189, saved the company $55,000 in annual maintenance costs. The AVVID device also enabled Thiele Kaolin to extend the corporate telephone system to remote sites and eliminated telecom charges between those sites.
"We wanted to converge voice communications and leverage the data network," said Bailey, explaining that the VOIP system also gave administrators a Web interface they could use to manage the system from any physical location using VPN access. Other benefits included better call reporting, delivery of applications to IP phones and the ability to view voice messages in Microsoft Outlook.
Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, initiated a forklift upgrade of its campus network in 2002, installing 10,000 fiber-optic Gigabit Ethernet drops to dormitory rooms, classrooms and other locations to create a VOIP-enabled campus, said Lev Gonick, CIO of Case Western Reserve. He said intracampus calls at Case Western Reserve now cost almost nothing.
Bill Peters, vice president of reservation services at Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, of Honolulu, opted to use the Echopass Corp.s call center service. Echopass, which is VOIP-enabled and based on Microsoft technology, combines voice calls with e-mail and chat functions for call agents. The result: 35 percent savings over Outriggers previous call center budget, and Outrigger avoided the use of offshore outsourcing providers.