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September 1999


OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS? The Internet Fax Phenomenon

BY WILLIAM H. MATLACK, JR.

Starting around the time that rotary dial phones were phased out and continuing for a couple of decades now, faxing has been the king of business communications— long before that e-mail thing came around. Who among us can't remember those nervous, irritable waits in line at the department fax machine, or the excuse of not getting something through because the fax machine ran out of paper? In fact, faxing is probably one of the oldest technologies still in regular use by businesses, which brings up the interesting question of why it is still around in this Internet age.

When you think about it, fax was kind of like e-mail with training wheels. It was the first practical way of sending documents over phone lines electronically — and to multiple recipients, to boot. When fax's electronic soul was ported into PCs (essentially leaving its machine body behind), it provided users with a kind of e-mail for documents in the days before attaching documents to e-mail was working well. But now that we can reliably attach a wide variety of documents to e-mail, is this faxing thing about to go away? Are the fax over IP (FoIP) people wasting time trying to teach an old dog new tricks?

THE FAX SERVICE STANDARD
The answer is actually pretty simple when you realize how well faxing has served its purpose. Through its service quality, fax has actually created a niche for itself and it is adapting very well. Along with voice, fax is one of those amazing technologies that instead of becoming obsolete have found a solid home in the IP domain, the very palace of high tech.

To illustrate this, just compare faxing a document with what would seem to be the logical alternative — attaching it to an e-mail message. As you might expect from an “old school” technology, faxing is… well, just more civilized. The two machines, or computers, shake hands and establish a common ground before proceeding. The benefit to this is that when your document goes through, you know it because you get an immediate and reliable transmission confirmation.

When e-mailing an attachment, you’re in very uncivilized territory with no automatic notification of receipt. Yes, you may be notified if your addressee can’t be found, but that’s about it. There is no reliable or automatic confirmation of receipt. Of course, there are some tricks you can do with e-mail, such as configuring a bounce-back message, but it’s not automatic, and it’s not built into the technology.

Another plus for faxing documents is that only its image is transmitted. This makes it the best way to send documents you don’t want to be edited. The ability to fax a contract, for example, and to get an unedited, signed copy back, is essential for many businesses. Also, graphical elements added to the document itself, such as timestamps, seals, and signatures, are best transmitted via fax.

Fax is also the only way to transmit documents or other originals for which you don’t have an electronic version. And even more important, fax is still more ubiquitous than e-mail, so there’s greater likelihood that the intended recipient will be able to receive the document.

There is also the issue of compatibility. It’s true that documents can be scanned and attached to e-mail messages, but faxing is still likely to be the preferred method of sending images over IP. Whereas Internet fax can be made accessible across various computer platforms, image file incompatibility is a very common complaint among e-mail users.

Finally, similar economic factors are at work driving FoIP that are at work with VoIP (voice over IP). Both voice and fax offer major cost savings when transmitted over IP.

The importance of all of these factors has led some key standards-setting groups to define specifications for Internet fax that will allow it to combine all of its traditional service qualities with the cost and efficiency advantages of IP.

SETTING THE STANDARDS
The three main standards groups working on Internet fax are the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the Enterprise Computer Telephony Forum (ECTF).

As chair of the Internet Fax Working Group of the IETF, James Rafferty has been heavily involved in the standards development work being done by the IETF to formally describe the .TIFF formats used by Internet faxing and by the ITU to define specifications for fax over the Internet. He is also involved with the ECTF, where he is editor of the Fax Task Group. This group is working to integrate Internet faxing as a media-stream within the scope of ECTF-defined server architecture, which will ensure its interoperability with other ECTF-conformant computer telephony applications.

The common file format mentioned above is key to meeting the compatibility expectations for Internet fax. Rafferty says that the IETF has published two key specs that lay the groundwork for this very high level of compatibility: RFC2305, which sets the protocol specifications, and RFC2301, which lays out the standard file formats.

“E-mail is still plagued with file-format incompatibilities,” says Rafferty. “But Internet fax will support a single file format that will be completely accessible to all operating systems and programs that support it.”

Service Levels
The specifications for Internet fax define three levels of performance: Extended (or Full-Mode), Real-Time, and Store-and-Forward.

Rafferty says that an Extended mode for Internet fax technology has just been approved by the IETF. Extended mode allows receipt information to be generated in much the same manner as traditional faxing, including confirmation that the fax has been received as well as confirmation that it has been displayed.

Store-and-Forward fax will be more of an integration of fax and e-mail. In most cases the fax transmission will go step-by-step from one server to another, ending up in a mail server, then a unified messaging inbox or an IP-enabled fax machine.

Real-Time fax is transmitted from server to server, too, but it involves a gateway so that a portion of the call gets routed over IP in real time using a traditional telephone network. Essentially, the long distance portion of the call is replaced with an IP connection. Because of critical QoS issues, real-time faxes will typically be routed over a private network while Store-and-Forward will generally be routed over a public IP network.

Right now, the ITU is working on T.38, a standard for real-time fax. Eventually, fax machines and servers will deploy T.38 as native protocol, allowing machines to go through H.323 and transmit over public networks.

Image
Complex image capabilities are another feature that will secure Internet fax as a vital business communications tool. The Internet is well suited for high bandwidth transmissions, such as voice and fax, since the Internet is nearly infinitely expandable. More complex images including high-density color can be delivered more effectively over the Internet than over telephone networks. The fax originator would get confirmation that the receiver has the capability for the high-density image, or the recipient could automatically send back a message listing what other formats he/she can receive.

Cost
As with VoIP, the biggest impact of FoIP for companies will be lower cost. Faxing has always created significant business overhead, and it is not unusual to see business fax costs that are much higher than voice costs. Internet faxing will help bring these costs under control for businesses worldwide.

BUILDING ON THE STANDARDS
The ECTF’s involvement with working Internet fax into its S.100 specification will ensure that this vital new technology will be easily integrated into a wide variety of computer telephony solutions. This integration within the scope of the ECTF CT architecture will help establish Internet fax as a viable and expanding form of business communication well into the future. As such, one of the oldest communications technologies will establish a secure foothold in the maelstrom of Internet-based solutions.

William H. Matlack, Jr. is a freelance writer and public relations consultant located in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at wmatlack@msn.com.







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