COMDEX: Users, vendors eye challenges of voice over IP

Voice over IP holds the promise of slashed long-distance bills and flexible future services, but service quality and security concerns may be holding users back from adopting it, according to participants and users at a Comdex panel discussion here yesterday.

The discussion drew nearly a full house of hundreds of users - most of them IS managers - who heard an industry analyst and a service provider executive examine the pros and cons of voice over IP (VOIP). The technology allows voice traffic to be converted into packets for transmission over data networks, which observers said can be expanded and updated more easily than can traditional voice networks.

Ed Hirschman, director of new business development at ITXC, a Princeton, New Jersey-based VOIP carrier, said cost savings on international calls is the key benefit of VOIP today.

For companies that don't already have their own WANs, a service provider's private network is the best option for taking advantage of VOIP, Hirschman said. Although the public Internet may provide adequate call quality for domestic calls in the US, the farther companies are dispersed, the less quality they can expect, he said.

"Just trying to rely on the public Internet in a fingers-crossed way isn't really the way to go," Hirschman said.

ITXC terminates IP calls anywhere in the world using a combination of IP service provider networks, the public Internet and the public switched telephone networks.

In addition to quality of service, challenges include lack of interoperability among service providers, Hirschman said. But carriers should achieve widespread interoperability next year through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) H.323 standard, he said.

Ken Miller, a networking and telecom consultant at Data Communications Consulting Inc., in Indianapolis, said that despite technical breakthroughs, carriers don't yet have good tools for making VOIP a part of their business.

"One of the problems to using VOIP that the carriers are deathly afraid of is the lack of a management infrastructure," Miller said. "What the carriers are really concerned about is, how do you manage that call and how do you charge for it?"

Enterprises that want to merge their voice and data, meanwhile, face internal challenges, Miller added. Telecom managers and data network managers will be forced to talk to each other and bridge differences in culture, he said.

While the two panelists focused on service quality, however, several users raised the issue of keeping networks secure from attacks by hackers.

Miller suggested that in most cases, if a voice call is compromised, all a hacker has is a conversation, and not sensitive data such as a credit card number. Some users disputed that view.

"We consider voice just another form of data," said a network administrator for a large US government agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said his agency is using VOIP in a limited way today and is examining wider use of it. He would demand effective data encryption on a VOIP system before recommending wider use.

"(Today) we wouldn't use it as a way to communicate sensitive information," the network administrator said.

Some users expressed concern that encryption, as used on VPNs, could add to the packet latency problems that must be overcome for VOIP calls to match conventional toll quality.

Another user described a typical scenario for use of VOIP.

Christopher Cook, a network administrator at AI (artificial intelligence) software vendor Artificial Life, said his 160-person company has developers in Russia, Switzerland, Germany and the US.

"Our long-distance phone bills are just outrageous, and that's what we're trying to dig into," Cook said.

He added Artificial Life has most of the key elements in place for a successful VOIP strategy: it is using an internet-based VPN from UUNet, which offers VOIP service, and is replacing its phone system because of year-2000 concerns and the company's rapid growth.

Cook's concerns are call quality and smooth implementation.

For example, "if you have two sets of phones, people are going to balk," Cook said.