3Com enters uncertain IP PBX arena

The latest firm to begin offering IP PBXs is 3Com, with its Superstack 3 NBX. But it arrives amid a number of unanswered...

The latest firm to begin offering IP PBXs is 3Com, with its Superstack 3 NBX. But it arrives amid a number of unanswered questions for potential users of IP telephony.

Antony Adshead.

The company is entering an arena where many communication standards issues need to be addressed and suppliers are weaving a path between standards that do not support all necessary feature functionality and the need to defend their intellectual property.

3Com says that its IP PBX system offers flexibility, scalability and cost savings for business users. The Superstack 3 NBX offers an enhanced call processor and newly designed gateway and claims support for 10/100 business telephones, with improved displays and easier connections, as well as infrared port support.

The Superstack has 10/100 uplink ports and includes redundant power supplies and mirrored hard drives to ensure resilience. Call handling can be carried out from any receptionist's desktop and the systems also offers increased voicemail capacity.

3Com is launching at a time when users seem to have put buying on hold while they assess the suppliers' arguments. The main disagreement is over what constitutes an IP PBX, with Cisco's Call Manager and 3Com's NBX operating at different levels in the layer stack.

Chris Lock, senior industry analyst at Gartner Group, said, "The use of IP-based telephony on premises is definitely on the way - there are lots of business process advantages to it as a result of the efficiencies to be gained from the common management of voice and data systems. But businesses need to be very clear about their business communication needs, and also ask whether now is a good time.

"For the smaller business, or a branch office, the technology and total cost of ownership opportunity just about make sense. Large corporates are not going to be forklifting out their old systems just yet. Large PBXs have a life cycle of seven to 15 years and can cost hundreds of thousands - it will be best to take advantage of IP telephony incrementally," said Lock.

The main reason for caution is that IP PBXs are not yet commercially proven. Lan telephony is less reliable than traditional telephone systems and rarely achieves 99.999% reliability. Standards are still being fought over for handsets, which cost up to $600 (£415) and must come from the PBX supplier to ensure full functionality. IP phones also need a power source separate to that derived from the line, although line-powered phones are appearing.

Potential users must also consider whether what they buy now will scale sufficiently for increasing bandwidth requirements.

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