Sizing Up Voice Over IP

FRAMINGHAM (03/20/2000) - One key to getting ahead in this business is developing a knack for knowing when to invest in new technologies. After all, early adopters get burned, while laggards get whacked upside the head by more nimble competitors.

By some accounts, voice over IP is one of those technologies that is still too far away to worry about. But after attending a Net Events forum on the subject two weeks ago (see www.netevents.org) and visiting CTExpo, it is clear the voice-over-IP movement is gathering momentum. One telltale sign is that industry discussion has begun to swing away from the bits and bytes to how the technology can solve problems.

Vendors talk about how voice over IP will enable road warriors to use laptops with soft phones to log on to corporate networks from hotels. Once connected, they can check e-mail and voice mail, dial colleagues via their extensions and even receive incoming calls as if they were back at their desks. And all of this for the cost of a local call.

In hospitals, warehouses and universities where people move around a lot, a slew of wireless, IP-based data/phone devices will emerge. A nurse, for example, will be able to use a handheld to scan a patient's bracelet and his new medicine, initiating a database lookup over a wireless link. If incompatibilities are detected, the nurse can use the built-in phone to place an IP call, saving time and money.

Symbol Technologies says it has a university customer that leases laptops and handhelds to students who can use the school's wireless data network to access various resources. Stirring in IP-enabled voice and charging a small fee will give the school a new revenue source.

A driver in more conventional settings will be savings on moves, adds and changes - down from $150 to $250 today to practically zero because the network can figure out where you are. Some calculate that converged infrastructures will cost 30 percent less to run than separate voice and data nets.

While all of this sounds exciting, the Stamford, Connecticut, network consultancy Gartner Group Inc. says the actual migration will be slow, predicting that converged systems will only account for 13 percent of voice system sales by 2003.

Nevertheless, it seems like it's time to pay more attention to voice over IP.

Consider this: One vendor I visited says it is talking to a county government about deploying 800,000 IP-based phones.

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