Call Waiting

Cost savings, application integration and simplified management are the benefits of IP telephony, according to vendors. However, local regulations are hindering its uptake.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  January 26, 2003

Local stance|~||~||~|As an increasing number of regional enterprises migrate their data networks to IP, vendors are encouraging them to assess the merits of converging both their voice and data traffic over the same network infrastructure. Simplified management, lower maintenance costs and improved functionality are just a few of the arguments for implementing IP telephony solutions, say vendors.

Furthermore, running voice over an IP (VoIP) network provides increased network intelligence and a unified communication platform, all of which serve to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the network infrastructure.

“There are multiple benefits in IP telephony. Everyone talks about the cost reductions, but users are sharing the same media on the intranet or the local area network (LAN) so they reduce their infrastructure requirement and they need fewer staff to maintain and operate the network,” says Rifaat Al-Karmi, data specialist, Avaya, Middle East.

“But the main benefit of IP telephony is the application integration. Enterprises can integrate their applications like Oracle SQL, their databases and their CRM [solutions] on one system,” he adds.

Vendors also tout the simplicity of deploying IP telephony solutions. According to the likes of Avaya and 3Com, set up, configuration and actual use are straightforward processes

“All users do is plug a telephone into a normal switch or hub and automatically they will receive a telephone extension. To make a call, the telephone will receive an IP address, which is the internet protocol used for communication over a network,” says Stanislas de Boisset, network consultant, 3Com, Middle East.

However, local telcos and service providers do not share vendor enthusiasm for voice-enabled IP networks. Consequently, the regional uptake of IP telephony is being hindered by PTT regulations, which prohibit the use of data networks for making voice calls. The primary concern for service providers is a loss of revenue, particularly with regard to international calls, where they benefit from both inbound and outbound calls.

“Most of them [telcos] show vehement opposition to it [VoIP] because they still rely heavily on international traffic for the bulk of their revenues and VoIP eats into that,” says Jawad Abbassi, president of Arab Advisors Group.

“There are basically two kinds of VoIP solutions, one where you log onto your computer and the internet and call someone outside, for example, from Jordan to Canada. The other type is terminating bulk traffic from Europe and North America through the internet and through VoIP gateways. This deprives the telecom operators of interconnection fees,” he explains.

The apathy of the regional telcos has not, however, dampened the investment in voice solutions by vendors. The likes of Cisco, Avaya and 3Com are still pushing their respective offerings and touting the benefits of IP telephony over traditional voice systems. Although the stance and regulations of the regional PTTs is to some extent reducing the range of solutions that vendors can offer, they insist there is still demand for IP telephony.

“Everybody we talk to asks if we support VoIP. They [customers] have it in the back of their minds — they might not be ready to implement it at scale yet, but they want to make sure that what they buy today is VoIP ready so they don’t have to upgrade later on,” says Yarob Sakhnini, regional technical manager, Foundry Networks.

“All our products are shipping IP from the servers down to our low end IP Office product. They are all IP ready and through licensing and control with the local PTTs we are giving IP on the trunk where its allowed and where it is not it is staying within the LAN. We can fit in with our customer’s demand for IP products in the LAN, but also conform with the PTT’s requirements for restrictions on the wide area network (WAN),” comments Leo Psara, managing director, Avaya, Middle East & North Africa.

||**||Upgrading|~||~||~|Vendors are beginning to win over regional customers, with IP telephony gaining ground primarily in new or large scale network implementations, such as Dubai Internet City, Egypt’s Citystars development and Kuwait University. Additionally, vendors are trying to convince existing customers to migrate away from traditional TDM (time division multiplex) systems, which they describe as “monolithic” and complicated to develop applications on, or introduce new features to.

“Traditional voice technology uses big switches that do everything — all the intelligence is in the equipment itself. If you are introducing new features it can take users months, sometimes even a year to develop, introduce and roll out. It is very expensive to maintain and it uses very dumb peripherals, which really have only one function — voice,” argues Mazen Jabri, territory manager, Gulf region, Cisco Systems.

In comparison, IP telephony offers enterprises an easier platform to rollout applications and features, while also enhancing communications by unifying the various messaging facilities. Using IP telephony solutions companies can integrate their e-mail, fax, telephone and voice mail systems, a functionality that proves particularly crucial to customer facing organisations.

“If I receive a call, a window will pop up on my computer saying who is calling. If it is linked to my corporate database of customers, I will know exactly who is calling and I can make comments about the phone call and save this information,” says 3Com’s de Boisset. “Whenever that person calls any of my colleagues, they will know when they called and what was discussed,” he continues.

To further strengthen the case for IP telephony, vendors claim migration from traditional PBXs systems to IP-PBXs is a relatively straightforward process, and one, which accommodates the running of both traditional voice equipment and IP technology.

“If an enterprise invested in a PBX three or four years ago and the lifecycle of the PBX is longer than that, they don’t want to throw it away and write off their investment — so integration is a major thing,” comments Sakhnini.

3Com’s de Boisset says the initial step in migrating from a traditional PBX system is the integration of the existing solution with the IP-based PBX using a signalling protocol known as Q.SIG.

“Then enterprises will configure the traditional PBX to handle extensions from 1000-2000, for example, and the new PBX will take extensions 2001-3000. Any new users will be on the IP-based PBX and the old users will use the old PBX. All communication will be done through the link between the PBXs and seamlessly through time users can just remove the traditional PBX,” he explains.

However, in some cases, enterprises may decide to retain their legacy PBX solution. For example, organisations may only provide power users or senior level management with the IP solution and an IP phone, especially in light of the cost of such equipment.

Furthermore, Meta Group’s Jean-Louis Prevedi, senior vice president & service director, global networking strategies, argues that the reliability of traditional PBX solutions means that enterprises cannot afford to completely eliminate them from their network infrastructure.

“Even if users are implementing VoIP for ‘on net’ traffic, they still need to have back up — and the back up is TDM (time division multiplexing). If their IP-PBX is down, not only do they lose access to data, but also nobody can reach them either. The company is totally isolated and doesn’t have phone, fax or e-mail — nothing — and there is no way that a business can run like that,” he explains.

||**||Technology Concerns|~||~||~|Interoperability is also another concern with regard to IP telephony equipment.
Customers face a scenario where their safest option is to deploy an end-to-end telephony solution from a single vendor. Although vendors are working on a protocol — the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) — to ease the potential problems of mixing and matching one vendor’s IP phone with another vendor’s IP-PBX, for example, this is not likely to be resolved before the end of this year.

Additionally, Meta’s Prevedi says that users may face software or hardware upgrades to ensure the compatibility of their solutions. “Interoperability issues will be solved in a couple of years, but it means that there will be new software releases, and users will need to upgrade in order to embrace this interoperability,” he warns.

As a result of these technical concerns, some regional users are opting to either postpone their plans for IP-based voice networks or implementing IP telephony solutions, but not actually utilising them. Additionally, 62% of respondents to a recent ITP.net survey revealed that they had no plans to run voice over an IP network. This apathy does, however, provide vendors with an opportunity to address certain teething problems with the technology.

“People have done the pilots and they have experienced all the difficulties in managing these type of networks and with all the prerequisites that users need to have in order to deploy this solution they are all stepping back,” comments Prevedi.

With local enterprises already expressing reluctance to utilise the voice capabilities of their IP networks, analysts suggest that there is further cause for end user concern. While vendors tout the TCO cost savings and management benefits that running voice over IP can bring, analysts suggest that many of these factors are overhyped and fail to mention the hidden costs of implementing such a solution.

“The vendors are trying to justify VoIP from a TCO perspective and there is no justification. If you don’t take all the costs you can manipulate the figures, but if you take all the costs — management, security, QoS, back up, people — it is different,” says Meta’s Prevedi.

While Avaya does concede that running voice over an IP network can force enterprises to re-examine their current network infrastructure, and even result in upgrades to software or hardware, the vendor insists that it outlines all of these factors in a consultancy process carried out prior to implementation.

“IP telephony is throwing up issues in the end user community and leading them to question their own network and its ability to support IP. It is certainly forcing some of the user community to revaluate their data networks,” comments Psara.

“Avaya, however, offers services, consultancy and network assessments to test and evaluate the network to see if it is VoIP telephony ready and, if it is not ready, we supply the upgrade or replacement [equipment],” affirms Al-Karmi.

Although vendors such as Cisco, Avaya and 3Com, have been offering IP-ready voice solutions for some time now, and have been gearing their solutions to reduce upgrade costs, upfront investment in IP telephony is still fairly sizeable.

||**||Inevitability|~||~||~|Cost issues are also compounded by questions over the Quality of Service that can be delivered when running voice over a large IP network. The traffic prioritisation that users must configure to reduce latency and guarantee service levels to voice users is also raising concerns.

“If enterprises want to deploy VoIP on the wider network they need to have Quality of Service. Users need traffic prioritisation, they need security to be nailed down, and they need to have all the policy and governance in place,” says Prevedi.

“All these additional [management] costs are totally offsetting the potential cost savings that you will get from switching. Most of the vendors are preaching cost savings in terms switching, but they are not mentioning how much additional cost you need to have in the back office to manage these type of networks,” he adds.

While management of voice and data together raises issues over latency and traffic prioritisation, it can also lead to conflict within the IT department. Enterprises traditionally have separate voice and data teams, but with a converged network there is only one department required. However, this team must have substantial knowledge of both voice and data.

“There can be some conflict over who takes ownership of VoIP — the voice team or the data team. The voice guys will know the voice stuff and the data guys the data stuff, but there has to be some integration between the two, ” says Foundry’s Sakhnini.

Furthermore, finding staff skilled in both voice and data IP networking is a difficult and expensive task. “[On average,] an IP networking professional is paid 50% more than a traditional TDM professional. If you want to make all the people move from TDM to IP it is a substantial salary increase,” explains Prevedi.

Other people-related issues have emerged within the user community. Although Avaya and 3Com claim to have plug and play user transparency for their IP telephony solutions, Cisco offers online tutorials to customers. Locally, Dubai Internet City has deployed Cisco voice solutions and users are provided with online options to teach them how to work the system.

“There are online tutorials at the Cisco web site and the Dubai Internet City web site where people can click on and be walked through how to transfer and hold a call, dial a number, and ensure call quality. It [an IP phone] is much more than a phone. It is a computer that can do voice,” states Jabri.

Despite these concerns and the opposition of regional telcos, both vendors and analysts expect IP telephony momentum to grow. The attitudes of regional telcos and service providers should shift as they begin to recognise the benefits and, more importantly, the revenue that VoIP services can offer them. Additionally, telcos will be able to offer a higher quality of service to users by investing in better equipment. OmanTel is already delivering VoIP services to its customers, while many of the local PTTs are piloting IP telephony solutions with a view to launching similar services in the coming two-to-three years.

According to Cisco’s Jabri, telcos are likely to benefit most by targeting small-to-medium sized businesses (SMBs) that cannot afford to invest in costly IP telephony solutions themselves.

“The larger the system, the more beneficial it becomes, which also shows that for SMBs a better solution would be a managed service from the PTTs and the service providers,” he explains.

“If they [telcos] offer a managed IP telephony or VoIP service to SMBs, not only can the PTTs ride the wave of VoIP, but they create can new revenue streams for their business and offset the declining revenues from the traditional voice services that are present today,” continues Jabri.

Despite the reluctance of local telcos to adopt VoIP services, the momentum within the market is ultimately moving towards converged IP networks. And although, there are still questions of performance, quality and interoperability to be addressed, these will be ironed out over the next couple of years. Furthermore, as uptake increases, costs are likely to fall.

“The next generation switches are not circuit switches they are all packet data switches and these are employing VoIP technology. In the future all voice calls will be carried out using VoIP technology,” concludes Jawad Abbassi.||**||

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