Some enterprises may not be ready for the cost and complexity of Internet Protocol phones, but theyre still drawn to the savings and features of voice-over-IP systems.
VoIP without IP phones? Its a route that a growing group of equipment makers and service providers believes makes sense. There are trade-offs, of course: Some of the VoIP features unique to IP phones are lost, but leveraging existing equipment, and routing data and voice together, are money-savers.
"We see this as having both a technical and strategic advantage for ser-vice providers," says Jeff Gustafson, senior director of corporate marketing at Vpacket Communications in Milpitas, Calif., which has developed an unusual voice/data router (VDR) that leverages enterprises existing phones and private branch exchange (PBX) gear.
Vpackets VDR can be considered part of the family of integrated access devices that includes IP-enabled routers or IP-PBXs. While most companies have developed IADs that are outgrowths of platforms, Vpacket has created its device from the "ground up" to incorporate a simple, upgradable, quick-to-deploy solution. The company is marketing the device to service providers or integrated communications providers, which in turn sell to small and midsized businesses.
"They are the first ones with this kind of approach," says Larry Hettick, vice president of consulting at TeleChoice in Alameda, Calif. "But Vpackets not going to be the last, thats for sure. Theres a huge amount of interest in this and in VoIP in general, either from carriers or enterprises." Vpacket competes with makers of voice-enabled routers and switches, such as Cisco Systems, and with IP-PBX vendors such as Avaya and Nortel Networks.
Nice and Cheap
Kathy Meier, vice president of marketing at Softswitch developer VocalData, says Vpackets approach is attractive to the "price-sensitive" customer that doesnt want to scrap a lot of existing equipment and buy costly IP phones. Enterprises can use the analog phones they have, and also integrate existing PBXes and key systems.
"Vpacket allows you to offer IP services to customers without displacing infrastructure. From what Ive seen in the last six months, this segment of the market is becoming more vocal and the demand for these services is becoming more important," Meier says. VocalData has announced a partnership with Vpacket, and is completing interoperability testing.
Vpacket, a privately held networking company founded in 1999, launched its series of VDRs in December, and has 30 to 40 customers in trials, Gustafson says.
The VDRs can be installed in small or midsized businesses, branch offices, large buildings or business campuses. The VDRs are placed in the companys telephone closet, just like traditional routers or PBXes would be. Wiring, handsets and local area network equipment can remain, because the traffic isnt traveling over the LAN. Converged voice and data travel over DSL or T1 (1.5-megabit-per-second)/E1 (2.048-Mbps) lines. Each VDR can support 12 to 24 voice ports.
The VDRs prioritize voice packets ahead of data packets, and incorporate a quality-of-service (QOS) measurement and management system. A management server allows the service provider to handle software revisions for all of the VDRs at an enterprise, an easier system than updating individual IP phones. New voice and data services can be provisioned easily, often by customers, through Web interfaces to the softswitch. Softswitches can provide a variety of interfaces, such as customization of new access via PC or laptop while traveling.
If power fails, the system includes a single backup telephone port that connects to the public switched telephone network, to which calls are forwarded automatically. VoIP phones are useless when power fails.
Depending on the setting, VDRs can save enterprises 74 percent to 94 percent over the cost of IP telephone implementation at present-day IP phone prices, according to Roberta Parker, Vpackets business development manager. Many experts predict that the price of IP phones, which now cost $150 to $700, will drop eventually, but Vpacket estimates that even if phone costs fall to $250, its VDRs still would be 45 percent to 85 percent cheaper than IP phones.
"We see this approach as having both tactical and strategic advantages for service providers," Gustafson says. Providers can offer more services, while both providers and users save money. "And its not a stopgap product. This has a very long life," he says.
IP Phones Not Precluded
The Vpacket system doesnt preclude adding IP phones later, Gustafson notes. The company has included much of the IP switching needed, and is developing a proxy firewall for Session Initiation Protocol.
Jim Zeitlin, Vpackets chief technology officer, says much of the companys interest comes from competitive local exchange carriers and larger telecoms — virtually any carrier that has built a LAN and is eyeing profitable services such as voice, video and virtual private networks (VPNs). "Thats really the driving force in our market today," Zeitlin says.
Not everyone is convinced that a "partial" approach will win in the VoIP arena. Keeping existing phones means enterprises lose some of the more advanced features specific to IP phones, such as displays.
A. Saied Seghatoleslami, director of strategy and business planning at communications giant Avaya, believes most companies want a full range of IP phone features, such as unified messaging, mobility and telecommuter solutions, and simplified handling of phone calls. "Businesses, at least in the U.S. and Western Europe, dont put analog phones on the desks," Seghatoleslami says.
Avaya, however, does make IADs, and also sells a voice-over-DSL product that is aimed at smaller businesses.
Ralph Hayon, president and CEO of Congruency, a Rochelle Park, N.J., provider of carrier-grade software and IP phones, agrees that there is demand for IADs, but that IP phones may offer a better business plan. "Theres clearly a market for IADs. There are clearly those who want a minimum of change in their environment," Hayon says. But service providers that want to move from a "per-line" business model to the more lucrative "per-seat" model would be better off placing IP phones in the workplace, he believes. An IAD "doesnt get you to the desktop," he says.
Hayon believes that even small and midsized businesses can take advantage of IP phone solutions without a lot of hassle. Congruency sells IP phones and a Netopia box with a VPN solution. It configures the box with the customers IP and gateway addresses, and ships the system ready for plug-in.
QOS Worked In
Callers using VoIP dont want to sacrifice quality for savings.
And they dont have to, according to several observers. Ways to manage and measure QOS are going into virtually all VoIP systems.
Vpackets VDR, for example, gives voice packets priority over data. Its QOS management systems check each calls clarity. The testing lets service providers review the QOS delivered to a business customer at any given time, and also will quantify the severity of any problem. This approach reduces the need for service visits to customer premises, because quality issues can be pinpointed and resolved remotely.
Vpackets QOS yardstick sits where the enterprise system mates to the rest of the network, Gustafson says. He believes thats a more cost-effective approach than having to incorporate QOS into every IP phone. "We think, generally, with broadband access and a good IP network, the perceived quality by the user will be identical to the existing phone system," Vpackets Zeitlin says.
So, Convince Me
VoIP still has a consumer battle to win, some telecom executives say.
"I think, technically, [quality concerns] have been put to rest, but from a perceptual view, some people arent there yet," Congruencys Hayon says.
"The problem is getting the word out," says Michelle Blank, vice president of galactic marketing at RADVision, a provider of VoIP products and technology. Latency and delay are "no longer an issue. Some would even argue that digital audio over IP is even better quality than voice over a circuit network," Blank says.
Compression and code devices have evolved to help bring high-quality voice communications onto the LAN, VocalDatas Meier says. In the backbone, "next-gen" steps such as QOS, better routers and high-capacity switches are being installed to improve the flow of data and voice. "Theyre doing Voice 101," Meier says.