August 2007 | Volume 10 / Nuber 8
Considering Fax in an IP Communications Strategy
By Richard Grigonis
Back in the 1980s it was difficult to cross a street in New York (or any city for that matter), owing to the huge number of bicycle messenger/delivery people rocketing about at the time. Actor Kevin Bacon even starred in a movie (Quicksilver, 1986) about a whiz kid stock trader at the San Francisco stock exchange who loses everything in a bad deal, becomes disillusioned and embarks on a new, more personally satisfying career as a bicycle messenger (remember folks, this is fiction).
But then the Powers that Be decided that faxed documents could be signed and re-faxed and still be legally binding, and the number of bicycle messengers plummeted.
Fax continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1990s, then faced the challenge of the Internet. The T.37 standard was devised, which specifies how a fax image (basically a TIFF format image) can be encapsulated in an email via a store-and-forward process. Fax users tend to expect faxes to move in real time, however, and so the T.38 fax relay protocol was deployed in 1998 that recreates the “feel” of the old Group 3 fax standard on the PSTN.
Early masters of fax plug-in boards and software for PCs included GammaLink (which became part of Dialogic) and Brooktrout, which became Cantata (www.cantata.com).
Peter Vescuso, Vice President of Marketing at Cantata says, “Fax is an essential vehicle for business communication. That hasn't changed in years. The fax business continues to grow. Pete Davidson, the fax industry analyst who heads up Davidson Consulting, projects that the fax market's growth will accelerate. Why? The short answer is IP. Here at Cantata, we have both hardware and software for Fax-over-IP [FoIP]. In addition to the board products that we continue to sell, we also offer their software equivalents - host processing versions of the board-level products. The reason for that is standard Intel servers have been tracking Moore's Law and have gotten so powerful that you can run the kind of fax functions on the host CPU that you traditionally would run on a dedicated fax board.”
“The transition to IP is partly responsible for helping to accelerate the growth of fax because it enables fax to become more integrated with many standard business processes,” says Vescuso. “At the same time there's a growing adoption of productivity-enhancing multifunction peripherals [MFPs], and most of them are integrated with fax server technology. They're a spearhead into the core infrastructure, a kind of a 'door opener' in places where perhaps you didn't have fax servers before. Now with an MFP on the premises, it's natural for the company to connect it to a fax server.”
“Regulatory issues are also driving the adoption of new technologies for compliance, and that ranges from certainly the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act to the 1996 HIPPA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] which is the privacy act relating to the health insurance industry,” says Vescuso. “In Europe there's a regulation called Basel II, the second of the Basel Accords, which are recommendations on banking laws and regulations issued by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision relating to financial risk and exposure. All of these compliance regulations are driving investments in information technology to help organizations actually achieve compliance.”
Cantata's Director of Product Management, Jeff Sieloff, says, “As for Sarbanes-Oxley, our surveys indicate that in the case of SMBs [Small to Medium-sized Businesses], 80 to 90 percent of the documents relating to an income statement - for which you might expect to maintain an audit trail - are faxed. So compliance and regulation are definitely propelling the adoption of fax technology.”
“Essentially, fax isn't 'fax' anymore,” says Sieloff. “Fax is simply a mechanism for secure electronic document delivery and archiving and retrieval. It's just becoming a more standard part of the corporate infrastructure.”
“And, thanks to modern technology, fax has become more versatile,” says Sieloff. “For a long time now many of the fax server companies such as Biscom, Captaris and Omtool have provided integration with corporate email systems such as Microsoft Exchange, so that when you fax a document it really doesn't go to a fax machine anymore. It just goes through the server and it arrives in your inbox. That's really what's driven the growth of the intelligent fax and fax server market for quite a while now, though of course the other growth drivers have kicked in too.”
At FaxBack (www.faxback.com), a company known for its NET SatisFAXtion fax server software that automates inbound and outbound fax traffic, Co-Founder and CTO Mike Olisvewski says, “Fax is actually an interesting industry to be in right now. It went through a period when everyone was saying that 'fax is dead'. But that's not true. Of course, as corporate phone systems move to VoIP, the fax machine doesn't migrate from TDM to IP nearly as smoothly. The number one problem cited by the various VoIP service providers is that the barrier to keeping customers happy, once you've gotten them, is keeping their fax machines working correctly. That scenario has opened up some really large opportunities for a number of companies such as FaxBack that are savvy enough in the fax space and well-versed in the technology and protocols, to come up with some unique and innovative solutions for the problems that beset the VoIP market.”
“From my perspective, all of the fax rules have to be reinvented because of VoIP,” says Olisvewski. “It's really breathing a lot of new life into the business. Just in terms of fax in general, there has been absolutely no decrease in fax machine use, nor has there been a decrease in overall fax traffic. There certainly has been a change in the sense that fax machines continue to get cheaper and less 'sexy'. But you can't find a single business that doesn't have one or more fax machines or doesn't receive important documents via fax. So fax is a huge thorn in the side of the VoIP industry, which doesn't consider it to be sexy or anything that they even want to have anything to do with. Still, without doing fax correctly in an IP environment, the VoIP guys will be in a heap of trouble when trying to convince their customers to convert to IP.”
“There are some quite serious problems that we at FaxBack view as great opportunities,” says Olisvewski. “First of all, there's HIPPA and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. If you move your business phones to VoIP there's no big deal. But if you move your fax machine over suddenly you discover that it's illegal to use it over the open Internet, because you're not using an encrypted pipe end-to-end, and so that's not considered to be a secured document transmission. Therefore, it's not legal for any of the compliance-based companies to move to VoIP and use their fax machines. That's why at FaxBack we've developed a solution that allows your fax machine to communicate with your VoIP service provider in a fully secure connection so that it maintains your legal compliance. That's the kind of thing nobody talks about until they realize that they're in an illegal situation and they have an immediate crisis that they need to solve. Compliance is a big and important thing in this market.”
The Travails of T.38
FaxBack's Olisvewski continues: “Another thing that people hear a lot about but don't seem to know what to do about, is the fact that the ITU-T standard G.711 protocol for audio companding in telephony is actually a very bad protocol with which to transmit fax. You really need to use T.38. However, VoIP carriers have a 'denial mentality' going on with respect to this. The majority of the VoIP carriers say, 'Oh, I'm sending thousands of faxes every day using G.711 and it just works fine'. Well, it doesn't. It works about 85 percent of the time, maybe. And if you look further at the statistics, you soon realize that you can send up to a 10 page fax, and then many people at that point experience a failure of the fax transmission. And when you talk about a 100-page fax, forget it, no one has ever seen one ever transmitted in its entirety using G.711, in any environment.”
“The VoIP carriers have had to completely redefine how they do fax,” says Olisvewski. “They got into trouble because they adopted media gateways not able to do T.38 well, so therefore they can't just toss an immediate solution into their existing environment. Of course, companies such as AudioCodes and Cisco have done a very good job at implementing the T.38 protocol. But the vast majority of everybody else doesn't have anything that works. Their products have a configuration check box for T.38, but it doesn't even function. Talk to anyone working on the software side of T.38 and they'll tell you that there are not very many gateways that function well or at all. For example, companies owning Lucent equipment are at the top of our sales list, since they tend to have problems sending faxes reliably using T.38.”
“For us, those exact problems are a real goldmine,” says Olisvewski. “We've forged a really great partnership with AudioCodes. They've got a superior product line in terms of being able to go from a couple of analog ports up to a complete OC-3. They're very competitively priced. So we say to VoIP providers, 'Hey, you don't have a media gateway that works with T.38 today, but we can put together a solution for you that does work well'. The VoIP providers have had just enough problems with fax to realize that they have to do something, and they realize that we at FaxBack have an extraordinarily good solution that works up to an OC-3 bandwidth level and so it truly fits into the carrier market very well.”
“Finally, what we've done - and this has surprised some people - is to address bandwidth concerns,” says Olisvewski. “T.38 as a protocol is a bit of a bandwidth hog. When you look at a typical small business environment, you see a DSL or T-1 connection to the Internet. These businesses try to push all of their VoIP communications through that sized pipe, along with their web traffic and everything else. When you do T.38 transmission through a pipe like that, you discover that a single fax machine consumes three or four phone calls' worth of bandwidth. So we at FaxBack have modified our compliance solution to solve the bandwidth and latency issues of T.38. Our product is called the NET SatisFAXtion Port Server. It's a carrier-class fax solution that connects fax clients at the premise over the Internet via HTTPS into the VoIP service provider, and then it does SIP T.38 out the back end to the media gateway. In this way you get a totally secure, low latency, Internet-friendly, firewall-friendly way to get fax traffic out of the customer's premise and into the VoIP service provider, and out to a media gateway that can now reliably deliver fax. We're happily able to say that we're not having a lot of trouble selling this solution.”
One interesting concept in modern IP communications is that the underlying information in any media is important, not whatever form the information takes. Thus, in a world where voicemail can be converted into an email, so can a fax.
Cbeyond (www.cbeyond.com) is known for being able to deliver to small business a whole integrated IP-centric package of local and long distance telephony services, T-1 Internet access and Internet-based applications for about the same price that small businesses typically pay for local and long distance phone service.
Cbeyond's Brent Cobb, Vice President and General Manager of Product Management, Mobile, says, “We offer a full-service communications and software bundle. We target the very small business segment: 5 to 30 employees. That segment is generally the last in the food chain to get hold of advanced technology. That's why we've brought IP-based solutions to them, often as fast as consumers, enterprises or medium-sized businesses can obtain them. We've allowed these small businesses to partake in the IP movement.”
“One thing we believe that's true across all verticals is that the customer's processes do not change overnight,” says Cobb. “When email first appeared, people were certain that the paper industry would collapse. If anything, people now print more documents today than they did before because there's just more information coming around. The same type of situation has occurred in the fax world where everyone's predicting its slow death. But we find that the requirement for signatures on documents and just the general procedure of taking a document and faxing it to someone is still very viable. That's why we at Cbeyond launched our Fax to Email service, where we take inbound fax calls to our softswitch and then serve those over to a fax-to-email server; that then takes the fax call and converts the fax into a TIFF file encapsulated in an email and sends it to the customer's inbox. Everything needed to manage your Fax to Email number is located at CbeyondOnline, our web-based account management tool. Over the past 18 months it has become immensely popular.”
“People such as real estate agents and attorneys need advanced fax capabilities because faxes are a part of their everyday lives,” says Cobb. “Another thing we've done as an IP based company is to extend faxing and/or the IP based components of it to mobile solutions. Indeed, our customers can buy from Cbeyond today a bundle of services that includes broadband, Internet, T-1, long distance, local service, fax-to-email, secure backup, more than 30 applications in all. Mobile is one of the big services customers have wanted from us, and the BlackBerry is something that we offer and support for our customers today. Since we can convert faxes to emails, our BlackBerry customers can receive these faxes on their devices and read them in email form - and respond to them electronically via email.”
“So, we've not only brought fax to email but we've taken it to those individuals wherever they are. Most recently we've added a laptop card solution to our customer base, using the EVDO Revision A nationwide wireless broadband capability, which gives users increased mobility.”
Have You Faxed Today?
Fax remains a vital, integral part of business, even in an IP communications environment where a fax may end up as an email or voicemail (or vice versa). However, corporations should be wary during the transition to IP, making sure along the way that they have sufficient bandwidth and that their equipment and VoIP provider can handle modern implementations of the T.38 protocol.
Richard Grigonis is the Executive Editor of TMC's IP Communications Group.
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