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Future of IP calls doesn't ring clear

Voice over IP technology has a wide array of uses, but the current speed and quality of voice transmissions over the Net is poor.

This isn't Alexander Graham Bell's idea of phone service.

Various schemes to send voice traffic across both the public Internet and private corporate network infrastructure using a phone are proliferating in Silicon Valley and beyond. All the while, some wonder whether quality issues could torpedo the concept before any significant market for the technology can bloom.

The technology--and the hype--is based on the pervasive use of IP (Internet Protocol), the dominant communications protocol of the Web. Working in concert with the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), IP routes data across the Internet.

IP has also taken hold in internal corporate intranets, opening vast opportunities to use the data communications medium to provide a wider variety of services, such as voice and fax delivery. Some companies already provide software gateways that allow IP traffic to hop off a corporate intranet onto the public telephone network, thus enabling voice and video communications.

Voice over IP technology has a wide array of uses, from simple Internet-based phone calls from a residential PC to a PC across the Net, to using IP to transport long-distance telephone calls over a geographically dispersed internal corporate network. In both scenarios companies would save significant sums on long-distance charges.

Sounds like an IP nirvana, doesn't it? Not so fast.

The current speed and quality of voice transmissions over the Net is so poor some analysts wonder whether we'll ever have the appropriate infrastructure needed to move the technology out of the niche realm and into everyday use.

Some analysts even say using IP as a transport mechanism for fax traffic across wide geographic regions may be more likely to boom initially, since most people associate faxes with data anyway.

Using IP for other forms of communications may sound like a neat way to expand the role of high-speed networks built for data, but according to Dave Passmore, president of Decisys, the question is whether there will be a market at all for the technology.

"It's not a matter of when, but if this is going to happen," Passmore cautioned. "Right now, it's not a pretty picture."

"It has everything to do with the nature of the network. The technology is obviously going to become more and more important over time, but we're waiting for the networking vendors to address the quality of service issue in their equipment," he said.

IP voice technology basically allows an analog voice stream to be digitized in IP packets and delivered to its destination in a similar manner to the telephone infrastructure. When an IP-transported call comes to someone's desk, in most cases, it won't be through the PC, but through the usual telephone.

Already there is an emerging industry for home PC users who want to make a phone call from their desktop. The software technology is there, and--despite quality concerns--a market for multimedia delivery has developed.

But where voice over IP could really take hold, however, is in business-to-business communications where vast, expensive network infrastructures are already in place.

There are several potential applications for voice over IP technology: businesses could move internal site-to-site voice calls onto their internal networks or hop their calls from internal sites to the public voice network at points close to a call's destination, thereby reaping cost savings. A call across the Internet or an internal network costs next-to-nothing, from a charge-per-use perspective. This is where gear from the likes of Cisco Systems, Bay Networks, and Ascend Communications comes in.

Some network proponents, like Bill Hawe, vice president of architecture at Bay Networks and a networking visionary, believe use of IP for phone service could boom in the business environment. Hawe also said there are other possibilities as media forms converge.

"It's certainly an emerging area. Most of the companies that are out there talking about it are looking at it as a way to do telephone calls," Hawe said. "That's one dimension, but in our view of the opportunity, we also see the need to not lose sight of the other opportunities, as in, things you can't do today."

Hawe mentioned the potential to tie telephones into the Internet infrastructure. That would allow users to, on the one hand, listen to Net-based broadcasts and, on the other hand, speak to a Net-based audience through the telephone.

Networking companies currently face daunting tasks to address the quality of service issues that most people take for granted when they currently pick up a phone. "Voice [quality] is never going to be better than what you've got today [over conventional lines], it only gets worse," Decisys's Passmore said.

Aspiring players will have to tweak their router, switching, and remote access infrastructure equipment to handle voice traffic. An emerging "call server" concept replacing a typical phone exchange for businesses will also play into IP usage for voice, according to analysts.

While some pundits are pessimistic, executives at networking giants are quick to mention voice-over IP in any discussion of next-generation equipment to handle media "convergence."

"If you are working on the Internet, you have to have a voice strategy and a fax strategy," Ascend CEO Mory Ejabat said in a recent interview.

Mark Monday, a product manager for Cisco, is also an optimist. The company recently released voice capabilities for a mid-range line of routers. "We now can do it at a price point that people can purchase it and see a return on their investment," Monday said. "There's also finally enough standards to make applications inter-operable."

Monday predicted it will be four to five years before mass deployment of voice over IP services.

Some are not shrugging off the possibility of using a PC as a voice tool, either. If a user viewing an online catalog needs more information, technology to allow that person to immediately get a customer service representative on the phone could make or break an electronic commerce sale, according to Ian Pennell, Cisco's director of marketing for the network-to-user business unit.

Pennell believes voice over IP calls are analogous to cellular calls, where users will sacrifice quality for convenience and, in the case of IP, cost. He views fax over IP as a more immediate opportunity for networking firms.

What could eventually emerge in a voice over IP networked world is a market in which businesses use their internal network to reduce long-distance charges between employees and in which residential users realize more and more quality benefits. On the service provider side of things, some believe there will be a market for IP voice calls for a flat rate--say $20 per month--for links between specific cities. Customers could also pay different fees for varying qualities of service.

But there seems to be general agreement that there's a long ways to go before voice over IP technology can be implemented with any regularity. "It's not completely clear where this is all going to shake out," Bay's Hawe noted.