VoIP - the way forward? I think not
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has the potential to offer many benefits beyond merely cost savings, such as providing the ability to run multimedia services over IP, reduced management complexity, and improved corporate communication.
With an estimated 166 million regular users of IP telephony by 2006 (Ovum), the potential of the medium cannot be ignored. However, many are still reluctant to invest in the technology and I believe it is not the panacea that is sometimes presented.
There are a number of issues that must be considered if you are thinking about investing in VoIP. To find a working solution the supplier must address the following issues:
Can the data network deliver "toll quality voice"? For VoIP to become a realistic means of communication then quality of service is necessary from end to end.
While some suppliers are still unable to guarantee quality of service, problems such as poor quality speech will remain.
Does it use a recognised standard for the carriage of VoIP, such as H.323?
Can the VoIP switch offer the same reliability offered by the traditional PBX, ie 99.999%?
Can it offer all the functionality of your existing switch? Why should functions such as follow me, wait on busy, conference, caller announce, dynamic keys be given up just to move to VoIP?
Is the switch IP-centric - does it run TCP/IP as part of its core operation or use a gateway, which will get you some bandwidth cost savings, but not full VoIP?
The VoIP switch must be able to connect with existing technology using Q.sig, DPNSS or similar. It is vital for a customer to introduce VoIP without being forced into a "big bang" implementation and a lifetime commitment to the supplier.
When these issues have been addressed, customers will still need a compelling argument for installing VoIP. It will save on inter-site communication but you can do this with just a VoIP gateway and IP handsets are still more expensive than the equivalent digital phones. Suppliers that sell VoIP switches and then force their customers to have IP phones will not be successful in the long run. An IP voice switch must deploy analogue, digital or IP handsets and the handsets should be able to be configured between digital and IP interfaces.
VoIP would benefit:
A director dialling in over ISDN who can have voice services as if they were in the office, as well as data services but without making additional calls.
The user community where tight integration of voice and data is needed, for instance the contact centre. With this the handset application may even be integrated into the desktop, with screen pops of caller information or copies of Web pages currently being used by the caller.
The importance of quality of service to the success of VoIP cannot be overstated. If the end-user can detect he is using IP to make his calls, whether because of a loss of functionality at the handset or poor voice quality, then VoIP will stay in the margin.
If this is resolved then those looking towards VoIP will use it but will need to have the ability to deploy it, not as a panacea, but where it makes sense - so both ordinary and IP handsets can be used. In this way you may implement an IP voice switch without IP handsets.
The benefits of VoIP are there to be gained as and when they are needed and where they will make financial and operational sense. But in the future, exclusively VoIP? I doubt it.
Mike Regan is business development manager at Alcatel
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This was first published in March 2001