Voice over IP still has hurdles to clear

The glitz of the voice and video over IP convergence pavilion at NetWorld+ Interop '99 Atlanta last week belies the truth: Business users are not yet using voice-over-IP services.

"Voice over IP isn't an option for our organisation right now," says Timothy Mixon, LAN administrator for the University of Georgia. In order for the university to move its infrastructure to voice over IP, the technology will need to be more mature and easier to use, he says.

Those sentiments aside, vendors demonstrated products aimed at business users at the pavilion, which was sponsored by RadVision, ACT Networks, Cisco and Polycom. For example, users could find Alcatel showing off its X600 Gateway, which supports voice, fax and data traffic; Vcon demonstrating its video-over-IP conferencing products; and ACT Networks showing its Service Xchange SX-10 voice gateway.

The goal of the pavilion was to "show the market has moved beyond enabling technology to actual commercial deployment for both carriers and enterprise users", says Michelle Blank, vice president of global marketing at RadVision.

But while the demonstration of new products, technologies and interoperability among multiple vendors is positive, the technology hasn't really caught on yet, experts say.

Business users, at best, are only dabbling in voice over IP, says Mark Winther, group vice president at IDC's worldwide telecommunications group. This year, of the 2.08 billion voice minutes that IDC is predicting will travel over IP networks, only 330 million minutes will come from business users. In fact, Winther says business use of voice over IP will not surpass consumer use until 2004.

There are a number of things that need to take place before business users will start adopting voice-over-IP services, Winther says. Today, in order to use some of the free internet voice services, users have to dial 16 or 20 digits before they actually reach their party, Winther explains. Business users need the same features they currently have on their desk before they will adopt voice over IP, he says.

Starting in 2001, service providers are expected to have native mode IP products in hand from companies such as Lucent, Clarent and VocalTec. Native mode IP will let business users connect IP-enabled PBX switches or fax machines to an IP network and use them as if they were connected to the public switched telephone network. Business users have shown that even though voice over IP today may save money, that's not the only driving factor, Winther says.

When service providers can offer business users a virtual private network service that includes high-quality voice, data and faxing capabilities over one connection, then they will start to seriously consider voice over IP, Winther says.

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