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Feature Article
August 2004

International VoIP: Lessons Learned From Our Canadian Neighbors


When it comes to IP telephony, Canadian service providers are on the leading edge. In November 2003, TELUS unveiled its IP-One telephony service; a carrier-grade hosted and managed IP service in Canada, targeting enterprises. In January 2004, PRIMUS Telecommunications Canada launched its TalkBroadband service, an IP alternative to residential phone service in Canada.

Being on the leading edge could be challenging, particularly when these companies are trying to replace the more than 100-year-old legacy of circuit-switched networks. I recently spoke with Boris Koechlin, director of TELUS IP-One, and Matt Stein, vice president, new technology and services for PRIMUS, about the challenges they have faced in rolling out hosted IP telephony services to customers and what lessons others can learn from their experiences.

It�s Still Early for the Last Mile
While telecom companies have been using IP technology for long-haul, Class 4 tandem applications for many years now, the process of extending that IP network into a customer�s premise (the so-called last mile) is still in its early stages. Because of that, both TELUS and PRIMUS faced a few distinct technical challenges during deployment.

For instance, TELUS had some difficulty synchronizing the timing within its networks, which is a critical part of ensuring high-quality voice communications. They solved the problem by reducing the convergence time of the various network edge components. New VoIP tools were also used to measure phase, jitter, and delay.

According to Stein, PRIMUS found that �managing quality across the Internet is very difficult,� and suggests that �a good system to qualify users before they sign up for the service goes a long way.� The company uses a tool to check each potential customer�s Internet connection for speed � to ensure that the network can support the service � prior to actually deploying the service.

Looking for Standardized SIP
For PRIMUS, getting touch tones to work correctly was a challenge in the beginning. The problems did not occur when trying to connect a call, but once the call was up, passage of these Dual Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) tones became problematic. Stein suggests that those rolling out VoIP services ensure that they have a very solid test plan, with the expectation that they will have to go through this plan several times.

Part of PRIMUS� reason for selecting VocalData was the platform�s ability to support the widest range of protocols � PRIMUS currently supports SIP, MGCP and SCCP � which gives PRIMUS� end-user a wide choice of phones. �We wanted to cover the largest base of consumer premise equipment possible,� Stein said. �Being able to move back and forth between standards gives us the flexibility to do that.�

From an interoperability perspective, another aspect that helped PRIMUS reduce the number of technical challenges was the fact that so many service elements were integrated into the VocalData application server. Stein favored all features integrated into the VocalData server, such as call waiting, call forwarding, and firewall management.

Deploying IP Telephony Means Reinventing Processes
One of the actions that TELUS took to accommodate an IP-based network structure was to create its own messaging bus between various IP applications and billing and provisioning systems. This gave TELUS the flexibility to change applications in a plug-and-play manner, as all applications filter through to a set of standard application programming interfaces, and then back to the legacy back-end systems.

One of PRIMUS� biggest challenges has been adapting to each customer�s unique service environment. Supporting IP telephony at the customer premise is definitely not as simple as in the circuit-switched world, where a black phone can simply be plugged into a standard RJ11 jack. Instead, each customer has his or her own setup. Some have digital subscriber line (DSL) broadband technology, and others have cable modems. Some customers have their own gateway. Some do not. Still others want local number portability.

In order to streamline the process, PRIMUS worked with equipment vendors to support more customer environments within the same device. This means that PRIMUS no longer has to open every box and configure each piece of equipment to support each unique end-user; instead, the customer premise equipment is configured at the platform level. This has reduced the carrier�s overall carrying inventory by 75 percent, said Stein.

TELUS and its end-users have been pleased with the ease of use of the VocalData applications. According to user studies by TELUS, its average IP-One subscriber begins using 50 to 60 percent of the myriad features offered by the IP-One hosted telephony service within weeks of being introduced to the service.

According to Koechlin, TELUS is seeing a lot of uptake on its voice mail services, where users are taking advantage of unified message features such as, listening to voice mail via e-mail and archiving voice mail messages. �This is a direct result of the simplicity and the commonality of the user interface,� Koechlin said. �The fact that all of these applications work together out of the box � using a familiar interface � is what is driving usage.�

PRIMUS has many customers that continue to use their analog phones and thus rely on star (*) commands to use advanced features. PRIMUS made sure that the user interfaces for services such as call forwarding, call transfer, and five-way conferencing were similar to those used by local phone companies, resulting in customers not having to relearn commands when switching phone service. The carrier�s efforts seemed to have paid off, according to Stein, �features [like] five-way conferencing and call transfer are very exciting to the early adopter, and they [are frequently] used.�

The Importance of the Stickiness Factor
When asked �why provide hosted IP telephony,� Koechlin notes that it offers a unique benefit to service providers resulting in more customer stickiness than traditional services such as PBX or even Centrex.

�IP telephony allows us to differentiate [ourselves from other] networks and offer more value to customers than they would ever be able to provide for themselves with services like traditional PBX or Centrex or even IP PBX,� said Koechlin.

�We could both further commoditize our network and become the big pipe provider, or we could take it in the other direction and offer customers the benefit of subscribing to standard services plus all of the new IP-enabled services. Now we have high stickiness, and customers see value in the network.�
Increasing revenue due to the delivery of advanced services and keeping customers sticky are just a few benefits offered by IP telephony. IP has also opened up a new world of opportunities for service providers, where they can more easily �think outside the territory.�

PRIMUS currently offers service from Halifax to Victoria � the U.S. equivalent of offering service from Seattle to Maine. �Without IP, it would not have been practical for a company of our size to cover the geography we cover in such a short time,� said Stein.

In the future, we would likely see international barriers quickly being broken down, as carriers in one country start to enter the territories of others and try to capture VoIP customers. The changes to the more than 100-year-old telephony structure are just beginning. This provides a good reason to learn what we can from our service provider neighbors � whether they are just north of us or across the globe � and those that have worked closely with them.

Mark F. Whittier is vice president of corporate marketing for VocalData. For more information, please visit the company online at www.vocaldata.com.

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