The evolution of voice over IP

The technologies behind voice over IP (VoIP) have progressed far beyond the CB radio-style consumer-driven services that started popping up around 1996, and while analysts and vendors see a market for the newest wave of VoIP products and solutions, the days are hardly numbered for classic circuit-switched telephony.

According to Wayne Bussey, president and chief executive office of Halifax-based Telecom Applications Research Alliance (TARA), VoIP is certainly the way of the future, but the introduction of VoIP networks into the wide-open world is still a distance away.

“I think it’s fair to say that voice over IP isn’t ready for broad, general, inter-country usage, although some people are doing it, but if you’ve tried it, it’s not uncommon to find the voice kind of broken,” Bussey said.

According to Lawrence Surtees, a senior telecom analyst at Toronto-based International Data Corp. (IDC) Canada, circuit-switched-based telephony is slowly being phased out.

“I think the expectation in the immediate term is any amount of traffic that can be IP-routed or IP-based is going to migrate off and away from the circuit-switched network,” Surtees said. “For the long term, if and when more IP gateways [and] IP network nodes get into private or public networks, then that will start to supplant the circuit-switched architecture. There’s not a whole lot of signs that has started to happen yet.” He added that the launch of Bell Canada’s and AT&T Canada’s respective IP virtual private network (VPN) services may be early signs of the migration to VoIP.

To listen to some VoIP evangelists talk, it would appear VoIP is the best thing since touch-tone dialling, but according to Bussey, the advantages to VoIP over circuit-switched telephony are pretty straightforward.

First off, there are cost-saving advantages to having both data and voice running on the same network, as opposed to two separate networks, he said. Also, because VoIP only runs on one network, a network administrator’s skill-set is enough to run and maintain both voice and data traffic on the network. If there’s a problem with the VoIP technology, it fits into the administrator’s area of expertise.

Another advantage is since an IP phone is a device that plugs into the network and lives by the same laws as other network-attached devices, mobility is an option for corporate workers, Bussey said. There’s no need to wait for a phone call or to stay at just one desk. Workers can take their phone with them and plug it into a network port elsewhere in the building and the network will be able to find them and route their calls to them.

“You can plug into the wall and wherever you plug in, that’s where you live,” he said.

And finally, the last big advantage to VoIP is a rich set of features, Bussey said.

But isn’t call display and call forwarding enough for today’s busy employee?

According to Michael Gaines, marketing director at SS8 Networks in Ottawa, anybody offering VoIP solutions or services has to offer the same services available on plain old telephone service (POTS), such as the aforementioned call display and call forwarding. He added some services to expect with VoIP are 800/900 number compatibility, local number portability and VPN offerings.

According to Al Wokas, president and CEO at San Jose, Calif.-based StarVox Inc., unified messaging services will be popular on VoIP. He added unified messaging is much simpler to implement on a VoIP network than on a circuit-switched network because everything is already connected through a data-based network.

Gaines added that in time, some telephony services would only be available over VoIP networks.

Sure, there are upsides to VoIP. According to Bussey, there are a few downsides to the technology as well. To begin with, a VoIP telephony network has to be well engineered.

“You have to make sure…that the system is properly engineered [and that it] has the bandwidth to handle the demand of the customer, which is not really a drawback. The same is true of the other system, too, but you have to be careful to make sure it’s a well-engineered system,” Bussey said.

Those who tried using some of the earlier VoIP offerings on the Internet will recall the consistent problem of latency. It just wasn’t quite the same as talking on the telephone. Bussey said the latency problems have been worked out and are generally handled well by today’s VoIP solutions.

“There was a time when you used to get a little bit of break-up in the voices, but that doesn’t seem to be there – at least, not in the few that I’ve tried, so it’s advanced quite a bit,” Bussey said.

The problem may have been solved for corporate VoIP networks, but take the matter to the global stage and it’s another story. While a corporate VoIP network’s traffic is controllable, the public Internet is as wild as a stallion in heat.

“If you start throwing voice over IP into the wide open world and start to have voice-over-IP conversations between Sydney, Australia, and Toronto … you’re into the big, wide world of the Internet, and most likely, you’re going to experience some break-up in the conversation because it is not a finely-tuned and defined network. You have no control over the vast Internet and exact path that you’d like to be taking between Sydney and Toronto, but within a building, you do have 100 per cent control over that network,” Bussey said.

The last of the big issues, which according to Bussey may have been resolved by some vendors, is stand-by power. If there’s a power outage in a building run by circuit-switched telephony, everything goes off except the telephone system. Why? Circuit-switched telephones have their own power system independent of the general power connection. If a phone system is run over a network, then the phones are running on whatever power supply the network is on. What needs to be there is some kind of back-up power generator so that the network doesn’t go down, he said.

According to Surtees, the adoption rate of VoIP telephony in Canada has been pretty low to date, but there is an awareness of the technology that wasn’t always there. And there are many early adopters in the enterprise space, he added.

Ronald Gruia, enterprise communications program leader at Frost & Sullivan Inc. in Toronto, said the adoption hasn’t been that great on the enterprise end, but carriers worldwide are buying into the technology and deploying it.

Unfortunately, there are still a few concerns from potential users and customers that have yet to be worked out, he said. Besides system reliability and quality of service (QoS) issues, customers are also worried about the security of VoIP communications.

“A lot of enterprises out there are a little bit more concerned that they’ll have their voice traffic sitting on the LAN where some people could come in and try to eavesdrop on their conversations, but really, there are special measures that could be taken to take care of that,” Gruia said, such as an IP VPN solution or adding encryption to traffic.

Unfortunately, adding encryption to voice traffic adds lag-time to voice communication transmissions, making the communication less like real-time telephony and more like a CB radio, he said. It’s a trade-off between security and QoS.

“There’s very little room left to add that kind of encryption,” Gruia said.

As the hype about VoIP networks continues, one thing to know is a middle ground between VoIP and circuit-switched telephony exists. According to Reno Moccai, western regional manager for Canada for Alcatel in Calgary, some companies are deploying hybrid networks that combine VoIP and circuit-switched telephony.

The Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design of Vancouver, has an Alcatel circuit-switched telephony network and is in the process of implementing an Alcatel VoIP network to connect satellite campuses it plans on building next year.

When the satellite campuses launch, the Emily Carr Institute will run Category 5 cabling from the main campus to the satellites, said Chris Brougham, manager of information technology at the school. He added the main reason for adding a VoIP network instead of new circuit-switched networks to the satellite campuses is the cost savings associated with VoIP.

“We had to replace the telephone switch anyway because it’s getting old and servicing was getting a bit problematical,” Brougham said. “So we took a look at what was out there … and we looked at the technology and decided we were definitely going to go with voice over IP because it’s cheaper in the long run.”

Although Brougham said he is confident the VoIP solution will work, he is somewhat concerned about running voice and data traffic over the same network because of QoS issues. He said he is worried about what kind of packet collisions are going to result of running voice and data over the same lines.

“When all is said and done, even though the technology is new, it certainly has the promise to afford us a better solution for satellite campuses and off-campus offices, too,” he said.

According to StarVox’s Wokas, what’s holding VoIP back from taking off in a really big way is the poor economy. Companies aren’t investing heavily in new technologies as a way to cut costs. He said he expects the economy to start bouncing back within the next nine months, at which time companies might start letting the cash flow a little easier into technologies like VoIP.

Surtees said that as companies need to add to their telephony networks, they would switch to VoIP because there isn’t much point of investing huge sums of money in networks that are quickly becoming outdated. He predicted that spending on traditional circuit-switched networks will hit a wall and then VoIP will rise to take its place.