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Triple play for Net phones

Internet telephony wins a triple play this week as companies debut potentially groundbreaking Net products and services.

Internet telephony won a triple play this week as companies targeting consumers, businesses, and phone carriers announced potentially groundbreaking Net telephony products and services.

Long disparaged as a low-quality technological mismatch, voice over Internet protocol (IP) networks have been gathering steam in recent months, fueled by mechanical and strategic advances.

The main attraction to Internet telephony is potentially lower prices on long distance calls. On that score, telecommunications carrier International Discount Telecommunications next week plans to offer a 5 cent-per-minute flat rate for long distance domestic calls. The rate, to launch March 2, joins the company's low international rates, which start at 9 cents for a call to London.

The trouble with Internet telephony thus far has been the poor quality of voice transmissions over IP networks. On the Internet, data is broken into discrete packets, sent separately, and reassembled at the receiver's end, usually in the right order. The low fault tolerance of voice communications has made Net telephony a dicey proposition.

But IDT, which is also a national Internet service provider, solves the problem by sending its voice transmissions over its own carefully monitored Internet backbone and by sending packets in a so-called "streamlined" fashion, single file. Quality, according to the company, is vastly improved.

Nor does IDT's solution have users calling through their personal computers. The call originates on the phone network, gets "packetized," streamlined, and transfered to the Internet at a gateway, and then is "repacketized" and transferred back onto the phone network at the gateway nearest the call's destination. IDT has 50 such gateways throughout the United States.

IDT is offering sample calls through its toll-free number, 1-800-CALL-IDT.

For telecom providers, the coming months will bring the availability of a telecommunications switching solution based on open hardware and software standards.

The way it is now, telcos rely on proprietary hardware and software for the switching networks that rout calls. As a result, the number of developers who can create telecom software is extremely limited. Moving to open standards would open up that field to scores of potential developers.

Natural MicroSystems in April will introduce a hot swappable network interface and DSP resource board for voice processing and call switching. The boards, which will fit computers running Unix or Microsoft Windows NT Server, can be replaced without interrupting service.

The company will also release its Fusion 2.0 Internet Protocol Telephony platform, which translates voice into a format acceptable for packet-switching.

In another sign that IP telephony is getting ready for prime time, Qwest Communications today announced a five-year, $107 million deal with Cable & Wireless, a telecommunications carrier that serves the business market exclusively. Qwest will provide CWI with access to its fiber-optic network.

Scheduled for completion in the second quarter of next year, the Qwest IP network will be 16,285 miles long in the United States. The company recently completed a transatlantic cable to London, and is extending its network 1,400 miles into Mexico. During construction, Qwest purchases capacity from other carriers.

Ken Krechmer, technical editor of the Communications Standards Review, welcomed the developments from IDT, NMS, and Qwest, but said that Internet telephony still had some way to go.

Krechmer noted that IDT's system requires the user to dial twice, once to reach the gateway and then to reach the call's destination. While double dialing is not a prohibitive problem, it does leave room for improvement.

A more important deficiency, according to Krechner, is that by bypassing the PC, IDT's Net telephony forgoes technological benefits the PC can provide. These include using the more flexible uniform resource locators, or URLs, in place of phone numbers, as well as services like automated person-to-person or straight-to-voice mail dialing that a PC platform could provide.

"Without those things, the advantages of voice over IP go away and VOIP becomes a weak copy of the dial-up network," said Krechmer. "It's cheaper, so people will want to use it, but it's not near to the conclusion part."

On the voice processing and call switching front, Krechner noted that telcos already are starting to use NT-based systems on an adjunct basis for various systems, and that Microsoft has been promoting its software to telcos aggressively. NMS's hardware "fits right in" to this trend, said Krechner.