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Mind Share

May 1999

Marc Robins Moving Beyond Plain Old VoIP

BY MARC ROBINS


The pronouncements have been heard from the four corners of the Internet telephony industry, and everyone seems to be singing the same tune: Plain Old Telephone Service, otherwise known fondly as "POTS," just won't cut it for much longer in the increasingly competitive and cutthroat telecommunications marketplace. In the domestic U.S. market, the window of opportunity for making a decent margin (make that any margin) by playing IP telephony arbitrage is practically closed. The nationwide carriers have succeeded in driving down the "end-user" cost of a PSTN phone call to below a nickel per minute for high volume accounts, and the average caller can shop around and find dial-around schemes for 7 cents. By gosh, even wireless is going for 10 cents a minute nationwide - airtime included! Wholesale prices? Try around 2 and a half coppers.

Unfortunately, this doesn't leave a whole lot of wiggle room for next-gen telcos looking to compete with POVoIP (that's Plain Old Voice Over IP) here in the United States. And when you start to factor in the cost of equipment, line and access charges, rent, salaries, etc., it can be hard to keep a business model from falling apart. The international market is still ripe for the picking, thanks to sky-high tariffs and usurious rates - at least for the time being. What's a carrier to do?

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SERVICES
We are clearly entering Phase Two of the Internet telephony revolution - one that is focused on provisioning a host of useful enhanced services and serving them up to a primed and eager subscriber base, for additional fees of course. I'm thinking about applications that derive from existing intelligent network/SS7 infrastructures, as well as newer offerings like Internet Call Waiting, PC-based Fax-Over-IP, Click-to-this-and-that, and Unified Messaging. The opportunities that await forward-thinking ISPs, CLECs, and Integrated Service Providers (referring here to the IXCs, RBOCs and other large carriers that dabble both in Internet services and POTS) are significant and represent very meaningful revenue streams.

All this talk about services isn't just mere techno-babble: Software and systems vendors are stepping up to the plate to create the necessary building blocks to make them happen. And service providers are more than just curious. I recently attended elemedia's (www.elemedia.com) first "Annual Customer Event," and listened to customers from around the globe who comprised a "Who's Who?" of the Internet telephony industry, including AT&T (www.att.com), Alcatel (www.alcatel.com), Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com), U S West (www.uswest.com), Spain's Telefonica (www.telefonica.es), Singapore's MediaRing (www.mediaring.com), and others. Technical presentations covered topics such as the state of IP telephony standards, and elemedia's product plans for next-generation gatekeeper and gateway software. I came away from the meeting convinced that the industry is on the right track, and impressed by the progress these companies are making.

To elemedia's credit, they didn't just rely on PowerPoint. The company literally shipped their entire Interoperability Lab from their headquarters in Holmdel, NJ to the Orlando, FL Sheraton to offer hands-on demonstrations of their H.323 gatekeeper software interoperating with H.323 gateways from Cisco, Ascend, and Lucent Technologies. Demonstrations also showed off AIN/SS7 functionality based on elemedia's H.323 gatekeeper software, an announcement server application (network prompts and such), and T.38 implementation for fax over IP.

CHALLENGES OF TODAY
The meeting highlighted a number of opportunities for carriers today, as well as a number of challenges that need to be overcome if we are to enjoy widespread adoption of this technology. In terms of Internet telephony technology, it's fairly clear that while gateways basically serve to bridge the PSTN and packet-based networks for transport of voice and fax, gatekeepers will increasingly provide the network intelligence and the pathways to enhanced services.

Some of the challenges that surfaced include:

  • There is still a preponderance of proprietary gatekeeper permutations and partial H.323 compliance in the marketplace. Too many vendors are still paying lip service to standards, rather than working at full compliance. This will continue to exert drag on the rollout of enhanced services by service providers.

  • Pick a standard, any standard, please. The current confusion over standards and protocols is another drag inducer. There are now four primary standards bodies writing specifications for VoIP, including the ITU, TIPHON (which is part of ETSI), the IMTC, and the IETF. In addition, there are a number of smaller groups, such as megaco (the media gateway control working group). There is a virtual alphabet soup of competing and complementary protocols being bandied about, including H.323, SIP, SGCP, IPDC, MGCP, MDCP, H.gcp, ECS, and NCS. When will the madness end?! I vote for the return of Ma Bell, with an IP twist, for a term of 3 years to help get everything straightened out, then we can have another breakup party.

  • The mantra for all gatekeeper developers should be "True gatekeeper architecture must build on established core standards and strive for certifiable interoperability." Nothing on the market is plug and play - even systems from vendors that have worked hard at full H.323 compliance.

  • Moving from the lab to the network. Testing is a good thing - to a point. The only way we can truly gauge the feasibility of next-gen services (and particularly the reaction of the subscriber base) is to put them out there in the network and start promoting the heck out of them. For a look at a number of pioneering carriers dabbling with IP-based enhanced services, check out the sidebar Show Me The Money.

Marc Robins is Associate Group Publisher for INTERNET TELEPHONY AND CTI magazines. His column, Mind Share, appears monthly in the pages of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine. Marc looks forward to your feedback.


Show Me The Money

A number of forward-thinking service providers have moved Internet telephony enhanced services out of their labs and into their networks. These pioneers are helping to pave the way for the rest of the industry, and their trials and tribulations (and hopefully successes) will teach us all some very valuable lessons.

US WEST (www.uswest.com) is one of the more aggressive domestic carriers. US WEST has been offering a fax-over-IP service, called FaxPower, for almost a year now. The application lets subscribers send faxes from their desktop PCs to anywhere in the world, using any Windows 95, 98, or NT application and their Internet connection. In addition, sending faxes with FaxPower doesn't hog the Internet connection, so users can continue to stay online while faxing. The service allows users to fax from a corporate LAN, from their laptops while on the road, and from home.

Notable features include faxing to one person or to a distribution list using the Windows print command. Fax confirmations are conveniently delivered directly to the desktop, along with e-mail. The software supports "what you see is what you get" faxing from any application - allowing you to preview the document to see exactly what will be received at the other end; it offers customizable cover sheets; allows the combination of multiple attachments from different applications, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, FileMaker, ACT!, GoldMine, Lotus Notes, etc.; browser-based, real-time status display via the Internet (status.faxpower.com) lets you see current and historic fax job status and stop broadcast jobs; and the software sends a complete delivery notification report via e-mail on the job's completion.

US WEST is also getting ready to roll out Internet call waiting services for subscribers to US WEST.Net ISP services.

GTE Internetworking (www.gte.com) recently announced the availability of GTE Internet Call Waiting - a service based on InfoInterActive's (www.infointeractive.com) Internet Call Manager technology. GTE Internet Call Waiting is one of two initial enhanced IP services - the other being IP fax - now available on GTE's new national fiber-optic network, built to deliver next-generation Internet services. Already 70 percent complete, the high-speed national network will ultimately stretch 17,000 miles, connecting more than 100 major metropolitan markets when finished later this year, and will also interconnect with GTE's international IP network, now in place in several key locations worldwide. The agreement with InfoInterActive also gives GTE, an established leader in international wholesaling of telecommunications products, the right to provide GTE Internet Call Waiting not only to its own 23 million U.S. customers in 40 states, but also to other carriers, service providers, software producers, and potential customers worldwide. GTE already serves more than 9 million customers outside the United States.

For carriers looking for a step up, Nortel Networks (www.nortelnetworks.com) recently introduced VoIP capabilities on its Internet call waiting service product. The company's Internet Call Waiting (ICW) Release 2 features advanced VoIP functionality, centralized management systems, an enhanced user interface, and improved platform monitoring capabilities. The ICW server and accompanying client software allow service providers to offer subscribers a range of expanded services including the ability to accept incoming voice calls via either PSTN or IP networks, while maintaining an Internet connection.

Internet Call Waiting's "take call" capability gives the ICW subscriber the option to accept an incoming call on their computer using VoIP technology, while still maintaining their Internet connection. Through ICW's call notification "pop up" window, the end user can select the VoIP take call option, which automatically launches the associated VoIP client software. Also featured on Release 2 of ICW is an enhanced, user-friendly interface providing end users with call notification even when the subscriber is reading e-mail or connected to an Internet chat session.

Providing a centralized management system, Release 2 of ICW offers service providers three Web-based tools for simplifying the installation and management of the ICW service; performing provisioning, administration, and maintenance tasks; and reducing overall operational costs. Service providers implementing Release 2 will also benefit from platform monitoring enhancements and diagnostic tools that allow remote monitoring of operational and performance parameters before they become service affecting.

Lucent Technologies' new Internet call management software suite for service providers, called Online Communications Center (OCC), will enable carriers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer consumers and businesses a broad range of easy-to-use options for answering and forwarding telephone calls received while connected to the Internet.

Lucent's Internet Call Waiting service, released last year, enables someone using a phone line connected to the Internet to be notified of incoming calls by a pop-up, on-screen message, without disrupting the connection. Online Communications Center adds VoIP capabilities, allowing users to remain online while answering phone calls at their computer. OCC also provides intelligent call management features, enabling users to decide how to handle incoming calls before they are received.

Service providers can deploy OCC's powerful package of new Intelligent Network (IN) features and functions either in their Signaling System 7 (SS7) networks, or as stand-alone adjuncts to their switching systems. Once operational, providers can then make Internet Call Waiting and other OCC features available as subscription services to consumers and business users.

Using OCC's Intelligent Network features provided by a local carrier, Internet services provider, or enhanced services provider, a consumer or business user can:

  • Answer a call and speak to the caller while maintaining the Internet session on the same line, using VoIP service provided by the network operator.
  • Forward calls to another number.
  • Play a pre-recorded message for the caller.
  • Set up caller profiles to treat incoming calls according to priorities set by the consumer.
  • Automatically forward all calls during priority Internet sessions using a "Do Not Disturb" feature.
  • Selectively screen or refuse certain calls, such as those that have blocked Caller ID, via an "auto handle call block" option.
  • Sort or export incoming call records.






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