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March 1999

IP Fax Enters the Standards Arena


In the relatively calm world of fax, a revolution is underway. Internet technology is creating a major shakeup in the way businesses worldwide communicate, and the effects of this disruption include a new universal messaging infrastructure that opens the possibility of transmitting voice, fax, and data using a single data network. Powerful new solutions include Web-enabled call centers and help desks.

For fax, this means developers are looking to the Internet to deliver next-generation solutions that preserve everything that has made fax machines indispensable business tools - while at the same time letting companies save millions of dollars a year on transmission costs. One tool crucial to building the new world of real-time fax over IP is the emerging International Telecommunications Union (ITU) T.38 standard, which makes it possible for fax machines from different vendors to talk to each other over IP networks.

Fax is a proven, reliable document delivery mechanism that corporations and individuals will continue to use for many years. As a messaging technology, it is ideal for communicating over time zones if fax machines are turned on 24 hours a day. Because it is written, fax can help cross cultural and language barriers while spoken words can often be misinterpreted. Nearly 40 percent of calls between the United States and Europe at any one time are fax calls, and between the U.S. and Asia, the number approaches 50 percent.

The estimated installed base of fax machines is 70 million worldwide, with still more sold each year. Globally, annual sales of fax machines reached more than 12 million units in 1995. Estimates call for sales of 20 million units per year worldwide in 1999. One key to the fax machine's success is that it is truly simple to use. As industry analyst Maury Kauffman of the Kauffman Group is fond of saying, "You can teach any 5-year-old who knows a phone number to send a fax. Try teaching a 5-year-old to log onto a computer to send an e-mail."

But as fax has firmly entrenched itself into corporations worldwide, it has brought along tremendous phone charges with little or no control. A recent Pitney Bowes study estimated the average Fortune 500 company spends $37 million each year on phone charges * nearly 40 percent of which is the cost of sending fax. Even so, most corporations still allow fax machines to be purchased at the workgroup level, with little or no strategy for controlling their cost or usage.

The fax machine's very success also limits innovation. Of the 70 million fax machines estimated in the market today, a meager 30 percent are capable of transmitting 14,400 bps. Less than 1 percent of the installed base of fax machines communicate at the new 28,800 bps transmission speed. With so many machines already deployed around the world, it takes years for new fax technologies to penetrate to a point of critical mass.

As awareness of the cost of faxing to a corporation mixes with an understanding that fax is a universal messaging technology, many companies have started offering IP fax services. Recent announcements of worldwide Internet fax offerings by AT&T, GTE, and UUNet suggest that a solution to the high cost of faxing is at hand.

Transmitting fax using the data network infrastructure opens up many opportunities to enhance delivery and reduce expenses. Entrepreneurs envision a new world where corporations save millions of dollars a year by using existing data networks like the Internet as global fax delivery networks. This can include real-time fax, store-and-forward fax, or some combination of the two.

The most obvious benefit of sending fax over IP is that it can save tremendous amounts of money on long-distance charges. When a user sends a fax over IP, a fax machine or PC client transmits the image data as packets through an IP data network - the public Internet, a company intranet, or an external extranet - instead of over the PSTN. If fax-over-IP servers even need the PSTN, it is only for the local leg of a call. For a call to any location connected directly to the IP network, there is no telephone charge at all, not even a local charge. Thus, it is possible to send faxes to any other location inside the company's IP network literally for free. The vision of a worldwide network without long-distance or international tariffs is quickly moving closer to reality.

E-mail is one of today's most popular communications technologies. But sending real-time fax over the Internet has several advantages over e-mail:

  • A signed fax sent over IP is a legal document.
  • Fax over IP is more secure than e-mail.
  • Fax is great for complex documents and language translations.
  • 90 percent of faxes go through non-PCs.
  • Formatting and graphics are preserved.
  • Attachments are already "opened."
  • You reach end points connected to the IP network and connected to phone circuits.

Many of today's Internet fax services bridge the user's computer terminal with a fax gateway somewhere in the world. This is an extension of traditional LAN fax technology, where a fax gateway at the customer premise allows users to fax documents created on client PCs or workstations through a common gateway. Often, these gateways are integrated with e-mail servers, allowing users to combine e-mail and fax messages to different users.

The drawback to this -- and most Internet fax services -- is that they do not address two fundamentals of fax technology. First, LAN fax services treat fax similar to an e-mail, forwarding the message from one server to the next until it ultimately reaches the remote site. And second, it presumes the majority of corporate fax traffic is generated at the client PC.

Fax machines continue to thrive within organizations because human nature dictates that people in large numbers print documents from their computers and walk the paper to the fax machine to send it. Fax machines offer the user a psychological satisfaction - as the paper goes into the machine, it is easy to visualize it printing on the remote side. This satisfaction and user perception are very powerful and should never be underestimated by anyone designing a fax service or solution. The fax machine is still king of the immediate document distribution world. To provide a seamless Internet fax solution, it is essential to address client PCs, but not to ignore fax machines in the enterprise. A solution that allows users to choose the interface they are comfortable with to fax traffic over a data or IP network is key.

To become an integral part of the universal messaging infrastructure, real-time IP fax must be based on accepted industry standards. Without a standard for real-time fax, terminals around the world would not be able to talk to each other - meaning a user could only send faxes to people with gateways of the same type. An effective Internet fax solution must be able to route calls out of the customer premise through switch equipment that allows both fax and voice traffic to be managed through a single gateway.

An emerging standard known as T.38 shows signs of becoming essential in the world of real-time Internet fax. T.38 is the first worldwide standard proposed for mapping the T.30 fax protocol onto an IP network. The proposal was ratified by the ITU in June of 1998. The T.38 recommendation defines the procedures to be applied to allow Group 3 facsimile transmission between terminals, where a portion of the transmission path between terminals includes - besides the PSTN or ISDN - an IP network such as the Internet.

T.38 uses two protocols, one for UDP packets and the other for TCP. ANS.1 encoding of data is used to ensure a standard technique, however, one of T.38's key benefits is its ties to the H.323 protocol. Anyone involved with IP-based voice is familiar with H.323, the approved standard for video and audio call setup over IP networks. H.323, which has become the recognized standard for initiating an IP-based phone call, is endorsed by Microsoft, Intel, and Netscape as the protocol of choice. It provides a format for selecting a coder or algorithm to encode the voice data stream. The T.38 standard has already been earmarked for inclusion into the H.323 protocol as the preferred fax coder of choice.

The H.323 umbrella will prove to be a key success factor for the adoption and deployment of the T.38 standard. As the world begins using Internet voice gateways to augment the existing PSTN/TDM infrastructure, fax traffic will be handled the same way as voice traffic. And some companies have already begun developing the T.38 protocol -- knowing that gateways and telecom equipment that can seamlessly support PSTN-to-IP voice and fax will be in high demand as the world begins to invest in data communications networks to handle both telephony and LAN traffic.

Steven Shaw is director of marketing, fax business unit, for Dialogic Corporation. Dialogic is a leading manufacturer of high-performance, standards-based computer telephony components. Dialogic products are used in fax, data, voice recognition, speech synthesis, and call center management CT applications. The company is headquartered in Parsippany, New Jersey, with regional headquarters in Tokyo and Brussels, and sales offices worldwide. For more information, visit the Dialogic Web site at www.dialogic.com.

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