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Predictions For 2002 Special Feature

[December 13, 2001]

What's Next For IP Telephony

By Barry Zipp

The days when IP-enabled voice services were viewed as just another way to get cheap long distance are over. Today, businesses know that IP voice services can streamline the management of their networks while unlocking multimedia applications that improve communications and help meet the bottom line.

The implementation and deployment of IP-based voice communications is expanding at lighting speed, underscoring a huge potential growth market. Dataquest predicts that worldwide revenue will grow from slightly more than $2 billion to $87.9 billion by 2004 for public voice over packet services.

Multimedia services such as presence applications, instant conferencing, and unified messaging add to IP telephony's appeal. But before a business implements IP-based voice communications, there are a few things they must consider regarding standards, obstacles to deployment, and the future application of these services.

Choosing A Protocol
To truly understand the future of voice over IP, it's key to first understand the protocols that make the technology possible. WorldCom decided to deploy Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which makes it possible to support customer IP applications regardless of the underlying data network configuration. SIP is a Web-based architecture that provides interoperability between IP applications, devices, and network equipment. Using this protocol, we can easily add additional services and applications for VoIP customers without interoperability woes.

Other protocols can be problematic when voice converges with data, fax, video, and future services -- they don't readily support these integrated communications services, and can leave a business out in the cold when the technology changes. For example, the H.323 protocol is better for businesses that are merely interested in replicating their current telephone service on IP. But when it comes to implementing new services, H.323 is more difficult to configure, and has more interoperability issues. WorldCom believes the simplicity of SIP ensures its longevity as unified messaging platforms integrate with cell phones, pagers, video, and other technologies.

Challenges On The Horizon
Aside from understanding the basic technology behind voice over IP, it's also important to understand the challenges that lie ahead for its widespread adoption. Quality is one of the key issues that has plagued IP telephony in the past. Issues with packet loss and latency have been blamed for VoIP's quality issues. Businesses should choose a provider that can solve that problem by offering a fully managed backbone, which allows for greater control over the call's path through the network. This helps mitigate the chance of poor quality.

While IP-based voice services have rolled out more quickly than any other communications service in history, there is a perception in the industry that adoption has been sluggish. Most of the delay has occurred in the IP-to-PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) calling arena, where the necessary equipment to make these services possible was still in development. The adoption of SIP protocols and the advancement of stand-alone phones that utilize an Ethernet connection is acting as a catalyst for adoption of voice over IP.

Another hurdle IP telephony has faced is the perceived expense involved for businesses that already have legacy investments in PBX infrastructure -- the equipment that routes transactions for the hardware required to make phone calls. However, there are solutions available now that allow customers to utilize their PBX-based infrastructure while moving towards IP-enabled services.

With a SIP architecture, businesses can take advantage of IP applications regardless of network architecture or access type. This means that IP transactions can run over frame relay, ATM, or IP backbones. Businesses save money by consolidating voice and data communications on one internal network, thus reducing maintenance and equipment costs.

The Future Of IP Telephony
IP telephony is going to be about more than voice over IP. It will encompass a range of access alternatives that will grow with changes in technology. It will also extend the current capabilities of IP virtual private networks and private IP services.

In the future, IP telephony will allow users to dictate how and where they want to receive information. This "presence" technology would let customers triage information to their home, office, cell phone, etc. and also determine the medium in which it should be transmitted (via voice, e-mail, or text messaging).

IP-based communications will also permit businesses to conduct instant conferencing and unified messaging. Instant conferencing will allow a business to set up a multi-port call with the same speed that we set up a two-way call today -- it will be as simple as dialing and talking. Similarly, unified messaging will make workers' lives a lot simpler, allowing a user to receive and process a message in any format. For instance, a user could receive an e-mail message over the phone (through text-to-speech technology) when they dial into the system.

The way online customer service is conducted will also change with IP telephony technology. A recent survey by Modalis Research Technologies found that Americans were seeking online support that is better integrated with traditional forms of communication. To answer that concern, call centers will need to allow businesses to communicate with customers via online chat, Web-based call back, e-mail, and of course by phone.

Remember that the future of voice over IP will be about more than just cost savings. To take advantage of IP-based communications, find a provider that offers a range of access alternatives to help you get the most out of your existing investments, while gaining more than just a featureless voice product. In the end, the integration of voice and data services will allow business to save money while unlocking a variety of multimedia applications. For all of the changes that IP-based communications will bring about, its most important role will be to help businesses drive their growth.

Barry Zipp is senior director of Advanced Voice Service at WorldCom. He is also responsible for the company's IP-based communications services -- WorldCom's IP Communications.

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