Future calling

IP Telephony hailed as the telecom technology of the future several years ago, promised its users converged PC and telephony messaging systems, simplified management, and potentially cheaper international calls. So why has the technology of the future still not taken off here?

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By  Paul Barthram Published  September 29, 2003

I - Introduction|~||~||~|IP Telephony hailed as the telecom technology of the future several years ago, promised its users converged PC and telephony messaging systems, simplified management, and potentially cheaper international calls. So why has the technology of the future still not taken off here?

When Dubai Internet City became the first major implementation for IP Telephony (IPT) in the region, it was not only the largest such implementation in the Middle East, but the whole EMEA region.

Since then other notable implementations in the region have been branches of multinational organisations, technology parks, call centres, governmental sectors, and slowly but surely some of the finance sectors, but the take up of the technology has still been relatively slow.

Whereas other areas of the EMEA region and the US have gone on to embrace bigger and better implementations over recent years, the Middle East has not been a boom market when it comes to the technology of the future. But the times, so we are told, are changing.

"If we look at the history, people started learning about IP Telephony in early 2000, but at that time there wasn't something concrete or solid to sell IPT based on. That's because a lot of the infrastructures, which is the data infrastructure that IP Telephony requires to take over did not really exist. For the past two to three years people have started to go back to their infrastructures and rebuild these to accommodate the future technologies like IPT," explained Louay Osman, chief technology officer, at Universal Solutions, a supplier of Avaya IPT solutions.

"From an availability perspective its very available. The way the technology is maturing now, and is becoming more widely accepted among the customer base, we're seeing it grow every year and we're going to see probably a very significant increase this financial year," commented Tim Scott, Cisco's regional sales manager.

"If we are talking specifically about the Middle East market, it's grown tremendously and now we're looking at an increasing rise of consumers. You might not see a market boom, but still the growth is going to be there, its going to be steady growth," said Shailendra Sainani, Aptec Gulf's product manager for the 3Com IPT range.

Despite the drum beating, not all of those working in the IPT field believe the technology has reached such an advanced stage where it's attractive to all comers.

"From my own opinion, it's just a start-up technology [in this region]. It's obvious that everybody views IPT as the future of telephone systems, but still most of the small to medium organisations are still kind of hesitant in deploying this, because of the high cost of the technology at the initial stages," said Hani Nofal, technical manager of 3Com.
||**||II - Restricted movement|~||~||~|
In truth implementations in the Middle East have been restricted to larger scale operations. It has only been in recent months that the IPT companies have started releasing solutions for SMBs, but while this offers smaller companies many constructive advantages of IPT, most companies of only 50 users and below are still hard pressed to find the cost advantages of IPT.

It also remains hard to see how the IPT resellers can make an impression on small to medium enterprises, when the larger scale implementations have attracted such heavy criticism. Critics have said the technology has been plagued by operational difficulties, and problems with the Telcos in certain countries.

Telecom restrictions aside though, there are many not buying into the IPT revolution because of reports of bad implementations, and poor quality. Even the premiere installation at DIC was reported to have more than its share of teething troubles in its early stages.

"When we moved into DIC offices two years ago we used to experience such issues. So we'd be talking to someone and the line would drop off. But all of those issues have disappeared now," commented Ajay Singh Chauhan, network unit manager, at regional distributor Mindware.

Cisco were one of the main implementers of the early DIC IPT structure, and Scott agreed the early implementation was problematic. "It was, yes. With any large-scale project you're going to have teething problems. In the first few months at DIC, Cisco along with the other people involved in the technology project, such as Avaya who provided the cabling were faced with some challenges until we got the quality resolved. However I'd like to point out that was three years ago and the technology has matured a lot since then and DIC remains a very happy IPT customer which has continually increased their IP phones since, from the initial 2,000 to 5,000 plus phones."

Many vendors and integrators believe the network infrastructure has strengthened not just at the Dubai Internet City site, but regionally as well.

Osman commented: "It could fail but this is why the networks would have to be IP ready. Once you've got that solid infrastructure built in, you're talking about an infrastructure that will stand any downtime and it might be only one in-point, not the entire network that's taken down with it. But companies have to look at their current infrastructures, and basically look at a lot of factors built into that [before considering IPT]."
||**||III - Bringing the infrastructure up to speed|~||~||~|
"I would agree that several years ago that would have been a concern. I question today how often a company's data network should go down. The bottom line is networks today are extremely reliable. So from a network reliability perspective we can ensure the same reliability, as people would have got from a traditional voice system," said Scott.

"I don't want to claim that the stability of the IP Telephony system is of the same stability as the legacy private branch exchanges, mainly because the technology is still new. However if the network and voice over IP on the top of it have been designed properly, you could reach a very reliable and stable systems for both the network and the IP Telephony," said Nofal.

For all the claims of cost savings of IPT-less wiring, unified messaging, lower maintenance costs, single management, ease of scaling up-there aren't many administrators of such equipment who have the joint skills of running both technologies in the region. The vendors will insist though that the ease of use of the technology, will make it a relatively painless task to take on.

"Obviously you have to have a background on telephony in general in terms of working with numbering schemes, and connecting to an analogue or basic rate interface or primary rate interface. But being on a five-day course for MBX (mailbox) administration will cover all that, it's not a big deal. I think a network engineer with a basic data networking background will be able to manage both systems from a single management station, so it is a plus actually," commented Nofal.

Cisco's Scott shares the view that a background in telephony is not as crucial to the changeover. "The good thing about IPT is that it requires IP expertise, not necessarily voice expertise. So if you're an organisation and you have an engineer, and that engineer supports your data network, your IP set up, the training and learning that he would need to do to additionally support voice on that network would not be that significant. Training really depends on their background, on how up to speed they are with their existing IP network. But I think the key point to understand is that like with any system its just about understanding the fact that the voice is all now encapsulated in IP across the local area network, and all that you're doing is administrating a dial plan across the network."
||**||IV - Finding the right market|~||~||~|
Despite this fact, the point still remains that the skills to manage both aren't widely available in the Middle East and to convince a business to take on board the solution would require consultation with both the administrators currently in charge of the PBX and IP network.

Another key issue to IPT take up in the Middle East is the telecom restrictions, despite big promises from the vendors the prospect of connecting between different branches, and the practice of international calls via voice over IP using the company network is next to impossible in most regions around the Middle East due to restrictions by each country's telecommunications regulators.

"Because IPT overlaps with the area of voice over IP; there are implementation issues in most of the countries. All the countries realise they'll have to go ahead with it eventually, but they're still trying to figure out how they approach it and what can they do to control the use," said Chauhan.

"Well in our region it is mainly getting the technology approved by the Telcos. The fact that this technology could scale to interconnect multi-sites basically will jeopardise the revenues of Telcos, especially when we're talking about international connections. That is why in the UAE, we are allowed to sell this technology but only if it's within the same location," said Hani.

Sainani sees the restrictions as a continuing long-term problem. "At the moment it's going to remain. The normal service provider for telephony has already invested a lot in providing this service, and if voice traffic was to move to the Internet, the service provider would certainly lose out. So for the time being until everything is integrated unless the government decides otherwise I don't see any new regulations coming in."

Most vendors don't see the regulations as a huge setback though, and are already starting to realise opportunities in the countries where a deregulated telecom industry allows more flexibility for the technology to come in. Already opportunities have started to crop up in countries such as Oman, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi.

"Surprisingly STC is very pro-IP voice and IP communications. And in fact Saudi telecom themselves have a Cisco IP contact centre already installed, and they also allow toll-bypass within the Kingdom. Between Riyadh and Jeddah and Dammam, if you've got lease lines or a data circuit, you can incorporate voice across those connections. But as my understanding of it goes they still don't necessarily permit it internationally, just within the Kingdom," said Scott.

"In certain countries you can do voice over IP, and it's been in countries where we've started to hear about deregulation. So the Emirates happens to be a closed market so far, but that's not going to hold us back from selling in countries like Egypt for instance or Morocco. We're not worried we see potential in a lot of other regions," commented Osman.||**||

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