Vendor gear to enable new IP voice services

Companies that want to adopt IP voice, but are shy about spending a lot on new IP PBX hardware and software, may soon have a slew of outsourced options to choose from instead.

A batch of new hardware/ software products, including offerings introduced last week by Avaya Inc., StarVox Inc. and WebBasis Inc., could enable service providers to speed delivery of unified messaging, IP Centrex and other voice-over-IP-enabled services. These services could be used to support call centers, converged enterprise voice/ e-mail systems or just plain phone service.

"A lot of companies that have multiple sites often end up with multiple messaging systems on their data networks and telephone networks," says Andrew Colby, director of hosted solutions at Avaya. With an outsourced unified messaging service, "a service provider can offer networking capabilities among all these systems."

Avaya's Unified Messaging Solution features software that would be hosted by an application service provider (ASP), competitive local exchange carrier or ISP and provide customers with unified voice mail, e-mail and fax messaging via a single Microsoft Corp. Outlook interface. Customers wouldn't need to change their phones for unified messaging services, for which Avaya estimates service providers would charge US$17 to $20 per seat.

Ziptone LLC, an ASP in Cedar Knolls, N.J., uses Avaya technology to offer call center, customer relationship management and IP voice application services to small businesses and dot-coms in the Northeast.

"We provide a very complex application, if you consider the number of components that comprise a [customer relationship management] or telephony system," says Dennis Kornbluh, CTO for Ziptone. By offering outsourced services, Kornbluh says his firm can set up a customer with a voice-over-IP or customer-relationship-management system in as little as 10 days. Unified messaging is another application that could ride on top of the firm's existing services, he adds.

IP Centrex services could also start to proliferate, as vendors launch technologies designed to make it easier for service providers to deliver such offerings.

StarVox is offering carriers a combination of a softswitch, voice-over-IP gateway and IP telephones designed to support IP Centrex. Like the original time division multiplexer-based Centrex service, IP Centrex handles all voice call processing, forwarding and switching from a carrier's central office, with phones being the only required customer premises equipment. The company says the service could be used for linking branch offices and telecommuters to any brand of PBX or IP PBX in a main office. StarVox IP Centrex is targeted at offices with up to 100 users, and the company estimates service providers would charge $14 to $18 per seat.

Another firm, WebBasis, has developed technology to enable service providers to offer IP Centrex and unified messaging for about $50 per user to customer sites with up to 1,000 end users. The company's EPIC offering is a combination of Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle products, including IP phones and application servers, that WebBasis has integrated to support a single portal service that providers can resell to customers. The offering consists of an application called Digital Desktop, which combines e-mail, calendar, instant messaging and voice mail access through a single portal-like Web interface.

WebBasis is working with the American Automobile Association's Northern California regional office to roll out the service on a trial basis.

One analyst says outsourced voice over IP could catch on if providers marketed it as being more than just regular Centrex features over IP.

"There used to be a little bit of a feature gap between traditional Centrex and an in-house PBX solution," says Ron Gruia, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan Inc. "Also, you couldn't configure it exactly the way you wanted it all the time. You had to take what was given to you."

These perceptions should not be tied to IP Centrex, he says, because most new services allow users to make administrative changes via a Web site.

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