3Com unveils voice e-Networks roadmap

3Com Corp. unveiled the voice component of its e-Networks strategy last month, introducing a roadmap which involves scaling its LAN telephony platforms for larger enterprises. And although the company seems to have good intentions, at least one Canadian analyst said he has some issues with the announcement.

Whereas the previous PBX systems with NBX technology were geared towards small- to medium-sized businesses, the newer version will allow for up to double the number of users, according to Ric Walford, director of network consulting for 3Com Canada Inc.

“It gives new connections out to the new public switched network. Before, outside phone lines would be needed to go into the NBX, and now you can bring in a trunk (line) much like a traditional PBX,” he said.

New products that the company will be introducing for LAN telephony include SuperStack II switches with the NBX technology, which will support up to 750 users per switch and will be available in the second half of 2000. The CoreBuilder 9000 will also be available with the technology running as a blade within its platform as a chassis solution for enterprises in early 2001.

“By virtue of running within that chassis, it will be able to take advantage of all the environmentals and management capabilities that are available within the 9000, and scale into the thousands of users,” Walford said.

In the WAN telephony category, the company also announced plans to release the PathBuilder switch, which will support voice-over-xDSL. It will be available in the second half of 2000.

SuperStack II and NBX products based on H.323, MEGACO and other standards will have gateway capabilities added towards the end of this year. The CoreBuilder 9000 will have the same capabilities added in early 2001.

3Com’s announcement also stated that in mid-2000 it will release applications to support customer relationship management(CRM), multi-location call centre processing and mixed media services such as voice/video and voice/fax. The firm will also introduce applications that allow users to interface personal digital assistants (PDAs) with infared enabled phones. This, according to the company, will allow users to personalize and manage telephony communications.

Dan McLean, an analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said one of the questions he has with 3Com’s announcement involves the pricing model of the equipment.

“It’s one thing for these systems to be enhanced — PBX-type systems that allow you to do PBX-type functions plus mixing of different types of traffic — but is anybody really clear on the cost of this sort of stuff right now, from both the equipment side, in terms of the cost of the equipment, and in terms of what’s involved in implementing one of these systems as well?” he said.

Hardware companies that offer business communications services are having a difficult time finding partners who are committed to selling this product set, explained McLean.

“One of the key questions is: Who are the guys that are going to implement these voice-data PBX IP-based solutions?”

McLean said there is going to have to be some education for “the folks that are on the voice side of the house,” because “even they don’t have the skill sets to do data,” and those are the people a lot of companies will be turning to.

The market is also still unsure as to whether or not these products are a lucrative opportunity right now, McLean explained. Which means it could be difficult to find someone to implement these kinds of solutions.

“But what you may find in a lot of cases is that companies may have to do this directly,” McLean said. “So they(3Com) will have to get their own engineers and experts out there to do some of the initial implementations until they can ramp some of the service folks out there to being qualified experts and installing these solutions.”

Mclean said the general perception of 3Com is that its focus has been on the small and medium enterprise and consumer product for too long, although it has been making “a concerted effort to re-establish themselves as a provider of enterprise solutions. But that’s still a work in progress.”

What it will come down to, said McLean, is whether or not customers will be prepared to say 3Com is their vendor of choice for replacing PBX systems they have been using from other companies. The answer right now for a lot of them is “probably not.”

“It’s something that 3Com’s going to have to work seriously on, to change that perception, and to convince people that they’re a player in this space and that they are a credible company in terms of having a large scale enterprise solution,” he said.

Pricing for the new products is not yet available.