An Explosive Year for VOIP

By Ellen Muraskin  |  Posted 2004-11-25

An Explosive Year for VOIP

Remember 2004 as the year that VOIP finally penetrated mass consumer consciousness, as friends in normal walks of life began to gain a dim awareness of the stuff I write about.

Give the lions share of credit to Vonage. Jeff Citrons ad budget bought him banners on such general-interest sites as, as well as space on all of the techie online hangouts. Covad aired commercials for its hosted business VOIP on prime-time television.

Cable companies did likewise with their consumer VOIP (voice over IP) offerings, and even the traditional telcos–both regional Bells and the long-distance triumverate–were forced to follow suit this year, igniting a consumer price war.

Perhaps equally important, VOIP adapters started taking up shelf space at stores such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Fryes Electronics and Staples, bundled together with service. Service providers also started marketing through e-tailers.

Read a column here about industry moves to raise VOIP consciousness.

Give credit, too, to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), whose hands-off policy on VOIP regulation encouraged more providers to enter the marketplace, and early entrants to expand their networks. By now, we know that whatever regulation is to be imposed on VOIP will be decided at the federal level. But we still dont know exactly what those rules will be–or how much they will force prices to rise.

The major telecom vendors have pledged their compliance with the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) signaling standard and continued on that road, with more and more beginning to implement the presence aspect of SIP into their phone systems.

This meant that PBX players, large and small, either built or OEMed servers that integrated buddy-status-conscious instant messaging with voice and video calling.

Click here to read about a mobility and messaging add-on for the small-business PBX.

Microsofts VOIP announcement early this fall drove the companys stake into the ground of SIP-based communication. Although Redmond offers APIs to PBX vendors, those willing to use SIP endpoints (such as its "Istanbul" software client) have a virtual PBX in its LCS (Live Communication Server). Many vendors, including Toshiba, introduced new SIP phones.

3Com, Nortel, Avaya, Siemens, and even little Comdial all showed me their approaches to presence-aware interaction in 2004.

The difference in these products will lie in their emphases, whether conferencing-oriented for sales presentations, video-intensive for such things as telemedicine, or collaborative for dispersed teamwork around spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

The more video-intensive solutions and services, unsurprisingly, have come out of the video endpoint vendors: Polycom, Tandberg and Sony.

Next Page: Bringing together rich media.

Rich Media Interaction

But the rich media interaction all seems to involve the following components: buddy-list actuation, whether for chat, voice or video; audio conferencing; point-to-point video, if only from common webcams; dual-control, shared applications; whiteboarding; real-time call screening; and soft extensions, suitable for laptop use through VPNs from the road.

Messaging functions, typically on an adjunct CPE (customer premises equipment) server, all will move to browser-based GUIs so they can be picked up anywhere. They will present voice, fax and e-mail messages in one inbox, with the mobility aspect giving "unified messaging" the respect it never got within the LAN.

All of these messaging and presence-aware functions also are being offered on a hosted model: We followed Covads acquisition of GoBeam this year, and with it, the launch of its enterprise VOIP service, which included provision and management of the T-1 last mile.

We reported on industry research that predicted a 45 percent growth in IP PBX sales for 2005. At the same time, we reported what we could ferret out on large-scale VOIP deployments that went bust, and on enterprise VOIP bets at record scales, both stories featuring Ciscos Call Manager IP PBX.

Interoperability between VOIP networks gained prominence as an issue, along with a new class of solutions for securing voice traffic across firewalls.

Finally, interest heated up in 2004 around the chance to use one phone, make one call and keep that call while switching between the public cellular telephone network and public or enterprise Wi-Fi VOIP.

SBC announced its plan to launch a combined Cingular/Wi-Fi network. On the enterprise CPE side, Motorola, Avaya and Proxim came out with a dual-mode phone for cell and Wi-Fi access.

In sum, VOIP in 2004 greatly widened and secured its hold on the consumer market, served by new and incumbent companies. It gained more ground in the CPE market, as evidenced by the rise in IP PBX sales, especially among greenfield installations.

But VOIP in the enterprise is still largely limited to corporate islands, on the LAN and the corporate WAN; calls to the outside world still travel overwhelmingly through gateways to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network).

The question for the coming years is to see where, if and when VOIP works across different enterprise islands. Will infrastructure companies such as Level 3 and AT&T start to offer a truly parallel network, so that companies can securely employ all of the multimedia and application integration features of VOIP across LAN boundaries?

Will enterprises see the need for this, or will they be content to communicate across two networks–one in multiple media via data, for authorized, authenticated partners and one via PSTN, for an unknown, untrusted public?

VOIP/Telecom Topic Center Editor Ellen Muraskin has been observing and illuminating the murky intersection of computer intelligence and telephony since 1993. She reaches for her VOIP line when the rain makes her POTS line buzz.

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