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Ascend goes for voice-over-IP

The company will soon roll out a series of additions to its networking equipment to allow voice and fax traffic to coexist with data on an IP-based network.

The convergence continues.

Taking advantage of the prevalence of a Net-era transmission method, Ascend Communications (ASND) will soon roll out a series of additions to its networking equipment to allow voice and fax traffic to coexist with data on an IP (Internet Protocol)-based network, according to sources.

The expected move marks the latest instance of multimedia support among the networking stalwart.

Included in Ascend's plans are hardware and software upgrades to existing MAX 4000 equipment, new remote access systems under the MAX name tailored specifically to integrate voice and data traffic, and a new device designed to provide connections from a corporate network to a service provider, according to sources.

Ascend executives could not immediately be reached for comment on the upcoming rollout.

The launch is an important one for Ascend, a company that needs to stave off encroachment from competitors such as Cisco Systems while moving forward in the aftermath of a large multibillion dollar merger last year with the company once known as Cascade Communications. A formal launch is expected next month.

Estimates vary as to when voice and fax services across an IP network infrastructure will become widely used, but companies are scrambling to articulate a strategy in this arena, since it is perceived as a potentially high-growth area in future years.

"Right now, voice-over-IP is getting a lot of hype in the industry," noted Maribel Lopez, an analyst with Forrester Research, who added that the future for the market remains "unclear."

From Ascend's perspective, the firm has to stay competitive to retain its presence in large accounts, she said. "Ascend can't get behind in a feature war. They don't want to lose their lead in the service provider space. They can't afford to."

Ascend gained much of its strength in the networking market by focusing its effort on high-density equipment for dial-up remote access, providing the gear that allows Net users to connect to a service provider to download email and surf the Web. The company used its expertise to access customer accounts dominated by the likes of Cisco as a result.

Adding new enhancements to the MAX line may give Ascend customers a reason to stick with the company, rather than move to equipment from hard-charging Cisco or the U.S. Robotics arm of 3Com, another huge player in the remote access market who recently announced similar multimedia capabilities.

The logic behind offering fax and voice services over IP is simple: Corporations can leverage multimillion investments in networks to lower fax and voice costs by sending this type of traffic across a private link rather than over the public Net, using infrastructure to get more "bang for the buck." Additionally, service providers can offer services based on the technology, potentially gaining a cost advantage over competitors.

Separately, Cisco will reportedly announce a high-end wide area access concentration device next week, offering the latest indication that the firm--stung by competitors in the remote access market--will continue to apply pressure on Ascend and 3Com, as well as other high-end equipment providers.