Outsourced VoIP technology gains momentum

While many companies may wait for their PBXs to die before diving into voice over IP, the technology could find its way into other corporations soon as an outsourced service, such as IP Centrex.

Analysts say such emerging services can be as feature-rich as circuit-switched phone systems found in the largest companies and could prove to be priced just right for smaller firms. Vendors displayed a slew of products last month at the Voice over the Net show in Phoenix that are aimed at speeding delivery of such voice-over-IP services to market.

“IP telephony will enter the enterprise from the outside in [as a service] much faster than enterprises will implement IP PBX solutions themselves,” said Tom Valovic, an analyst with market research firm IDC.

IDC estimates the number of voice-over-IP minutes used worldwide by businesses will balloon from about 497 million minutes this year to 127.5 billion minutes by 2005.

Valovic said small firms will lead the way in adopting voice-over-IP services and advanced IP-based telephony features, such as unified messaging and voice-enabled applications.

“A lot of companies will be attracted to the service model because they don’t want to mess with this stuff themselves,” he said. “Bigger enterprises that are more staffed up may be different.”

While regular Centrex is nothing new to small and midsize businesses, “what will be appealing to business users are the features that IP Centrex will offer that take advantage of the services’ converged nature,” said Bert Davenport, IP telephony product manager for CommWorks. At the show in Phoenix, the 3Com subsidiary demonstrated a system to enable carriers to sell IP Centrex services to business subscribers. The system comprises a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) Proxy server, Total Control 1000 Media Gateway and SIP phone products.

IP Centrex could include policy-based applications that handle calls which follow rules users set on their PCs, or tools that allow administrators to add users and features quickly through a Web interface, Davenport says.

WorldCom is currently selling IP Centrex to small and midsize businesses using 3Com’s equipment.

“Having just a [voice-over-IP] service that gives dial tone and basic features [such as call forwarding, transfer and hold] is not that exciting,” said Ralph Hayon, CEO of Congruency, which makes softswitches and IP phones that underpin voice-over-IP services for business customers.

Congruency’s CNS 3200 Hosted Communications Platform enables carriers to offer phone services such as “find me/follow me” – which allows an end user to have calls forwarded to different numbers until the call is answered – as well as unified messaging. The software also allows customers to change phone features from a PC interface.

Other voice-over-IP services will take advantage of VoiceXML, a version of XML that lets users do things such as access Web pages by talking into phones. IPeria last month added VoiceXML capabilities to its ActiveEdge application server, which acts as an enhanced Class 5 telephone company switch for providing basic voice-over-IP call services to customers.

TalkingNets, a Wilmington, N.C., voice ASP, is testing the IPeria software. The firm offers IP Centrex-like services that include policy-based call management, unified messaging and find me/follow me. The services cost between US$25 and US$35 per month per user.

“The whole world is being outsourced,” said Brian Strachman, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group. However, he believes IP Centrex will succeed only in smaller businesses because if a company has the capacity to buy, install and maintain its own phones and other telephony gear, that’s probably less expensive in the long run.

“I wouldn’t count on any big installs for IP Centrex for a while,” he said.