SAN FRANCISCO (03/08/2000) - Network service provider Equant NV today rolled out what it claims is the world's first global integrated voice and data service over a managed Internet Protocol (IP) network.
The service allows businesses to make phone calls, send faxes, transfer files, stream video and perform data conferencing simultaneously over the same network connection, according to Equant officials, who offered the first public demonstrations of the service here and in London earlier today.
Equant said converging voice and data traffic on a single network will allow businesses to save 35 percent to 50 percent on their calling costs, depending on the location of their offices and their traffic volumes. The IP-based network also provides a foundation on which businesses can deploy future applications such as unified messaging and Web-based call centers, officials said.
"It's not just a new technology, it's a platform for building new types of applications downstream, and that's what's so exciting about IP," said Lawrence Huntley, executive vice president of marketing for Equant.
The service is available today in the approximately 50 countries where Equant has been granted regulatory approval for voice services (see below). The company operates in more than 200 countries worldwide, and will extend the service in those countries as it gets permission.
Customers pay a flat monthly fee for a fixed transmission rate, meaning that voice calls aren't billed separately by the minute. The rates for the service are the same as for Equant's data-only service. "You don't pay any premium for voice," Huntley said.
The cost savings will be an attractive draw for some businesses, although companies that have "bullied their phone carrier" into very low rates may not enjoy such substantial cost savings, said Hilary Mine, executive vice president of Probe Research Inc., a Cedar Knoll, New Jersey-based research and consulting firm.
One of the main criticisms of voice over IP has been that the public Internet can't offer the reliability or quality of service offered by a traditional telephone network. Equant's service runs over its private IP network, allowing the company to offer service level agreements including a commitment that 99.5% of all voice-over-IP calls will be completed.
The service uses Cisco Systems Inc.'s 2600 and 3600 series multi-service routers, as well as other Cisco voice-over-IP technologies, Equant officials said.
Equant and Cisco officials offered a demonstration here designed to show how the quality of voice calls won't deteriorate when they share an IP network with more data-intensive applications. An official placed a voice call to Sydney, downloaded a large data file from Atlanta and carried on a videoconference with a colleague in Atlanta. The quality of the voice call didn't seem to deteriorate, although Probe Research's Mine noted that a more demanding demonstration might have employed more callers.
Mine called the service "an attractive offer," particularly for companies, governments and organizations with geographically dispersed offices. She praised Equant for being first to market with an integrated voice/data IP service, but said competitors will likely catch up soon on its early lead.
Equant officials acknowledged a couple of shortcomings with the service, which they plan to fix soon. The company doesn't have audio conferencing servers in its network, making voice-over-IP conference calling "complicated," officials said. Nor does the service support "off-net" communications, which means that calls can't be made between the IP network and a traditional circuit-switched network -- effectively limiting calls to intra-company communications. Equant expects to offer off-net calling by June, said Daniel Da Costa, an Equant product development manager.
Equant's network also doesn't currently use MPLS (Multi-protocol Label Switching), an emerging specification that tags IP packets with "labels" to specify a route and a priority for them. Instead, Equant draws on other technologies in Cisco's routers and in its own network to prioritize voice traffic, ensuring that calls don't get distorted.
"When we implement MPLS and other queuing mechanisms at the end of the year, we'll be able to prioritize other applications for the customer. Right now we give voice priority for everything," Da Costa said.
Equant officials also said they need to add wireless capabilities to the network, which they hope to start delivering in 2001.
Following is a list of countries and territories where Equant said it has been given regulatory approval to offer the voice/data service: Canada, the United States, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Puerto Rico, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Guam, Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, San Marino, Northern Mariana Islands and Reunion.
Equant has its corporate headquarters in Amsterdam and can be contacted there at +31-20-581-8383 or on the Web at http://www.equant.com/.