Group makes case for sending fax over IP

A new group says it’s time for the enterprise to seriously consider fax over IP (FoIP) for document transmission, but industry observers also suggest the technology is at a crossroads.

In September, the International VoIP Council, comprising carriers, gear makers and other firms in the communications industry, unveiled the FoIP working group. It’s keen on spreading the message that FoIP is ready for prime time.

Ralph Musgrove, vice-president of market development at Venali Inc., a Miami Beach, Fla.-based FoIP service provider, said the technology can be beneficial.

FoIP uses data links so it’s less expensive than traditional PSTN-based fax, which presents long-distance phone charges. With FoIP, people can send and receive faxes via PCs, bringing communication closer to users. And FoIP is reliable.

“We had a customer we talked to recently,” Musgrove said. “They had 26 fax servers, six people dedicated to maintaining those fax servers. Those guys achieved an uptime of 81 per cent, which, quite frankly, sucks.

“Now they use fax over IP….They have an uptime of 99.99-something.”

Given the positives, “the mystery is almost why fax over IP didn’t catch on faster,” said Neal Shact, chairman of the VoIP Council.

But perhaps the answer to that question lies in the technology itself. FoIP has foibles. For example, service providers lack interoperability. FoIP messages must traverse the PSTN to connect with numbers served by competing carriers. Musgrove said the process is “silly.”

“It’s like I’m sending you an e-mail, but rather than doing it through the e-mail server, the e-mail goes to my secretary, who prints it, puts it in an envelope, sends it to your secretary, who will type it back into the computer and e-mail it to you.”

FoIP methodology also presents problems. Most service providers, including Venali, employ the “store-and-forward” version: the user sends a message from her PC; it travels via IP to the service provider’s point of presence (PoP) near the destination; at the PoP, a fax modem collects the incoming packets, storing them until the entire message comes in; the modem dials the recipient and sends the completed missive.

Musgrove said some might think messages are vulnerable during the “store” part of the process. But it’s no big deal, he said. Venali, for instance, uses 3DES encryption and VPNs to keep messages safe from prying eyes.

But there are other issues. Stephen Lawson, vice-president of Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont., said store-and-forward makes faxing less immediate. Messages travel not in real time (sub-250-millisecond delay), but only as fast as the computers along the transmission path allow (think three- or four-second delay).

Lawson said companies are trying to make FoIP operate in real time, “to get back to that feeling you had when you put the paper in the fax machine. You knew that you would get an error message back if it didn’t print at the other end.”

But Musgrove said real-time FoIP, which relies on the T.38 protocol, is far from perfect.

“All the problems you have with voice over IP – packet loss, network latency – heavily affect how the fax will be delivered,” he said. “What very often happens is the fax will simply fail.”

That’s why Venali employs store-and-forward, he said. “The network quality becomes irrelevant. If you have a couple of lost packets, you just re-send them.”

Craig Hoeferkamp is technical manager at a major U.S. insurance firm that uses Venali’s service. He said FoIP brings faxes directly to the call centre agents’ PCs, making staffers more efficient. “If a counsellor doesn’t have to get up from his or her seat to retrieve a fax or send a fax, they’re inherently more productive.”

Since FoIP essentially turns messages into files, it’s easier to track and store them. “We want to maintain copies of that document for years to come, for legal and regulatory reasons, without taking up a whole boatload of space,” Hoeferkamp said, pointing out that digital documents take up less space than do stacks of paper.

Musgrove said FoIP works in conjunction with e-mail antispam filters. A savvy company could apply antispam to incoming faxes, to cut down on fax spam.

However, antispam hurts as well as helps companies that use FoIP, said Nathan Pitka, a business product marketing manager at Telus Corp.

“Some antispam systems are identifying faxes as spam,” he said.

Still, Telus’s FoIP service is proving popular. Pitka said the service experienced 40 per cent growth last year.

Lawson said perhaps FoIP is ill deserving of its old-fashioned name. “Fax over IP is going to evolve into another secure document format….What they call it is almost beside the point.”

Musgrove said FoIP complements up-and-coming technology, suggesting that fax is here to stay. For example, with FoIP on a tablet PC, “you have the fax show up in your e-mail inbox. You can double-click on it…sign the document right on your screen and fax it back – which definitely beats trying to find the business centre in your hotel.”

For more information about the International VoIP Council and the FoIP working group, visit