What’s the Deal with VoIP?

By Jeff Blackey

One of the most promising communication tools in the marketplace today is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), an emerging technology that transmits voice conversations over data networks such as the Internet, a corporate Intranet, or a privately managed IP network. Unlike a conventional telephone call that continuously reserves bandwidth capacity between two calling parties, VoIP converts voice calls into compressed data packets and allows them to be intermingled with other forms of Internet traffic, which are then transmitted over high-speed Internet or IP lines. This allows customers to make full use of their bandwidth no matter what type of traffic they are using at a given moment, voice or Internet.

Telecom analysts believe that all circuit-switched networks will eventually be replaced with packet-switching technology, both for residential calling and in the business environment. VoIP technology is more cost-effective than traditional phone networks and its infrastructure requirements are considerably less extensive. IP packets can be transmitted on the Internet instead of private lines for greater cost efficiency.

But there is still much to be learned about VoIP and how this promising new technology can fit affordably into the business environment. While most consumers equate VoIP with low-cost, residential “Internet phone calls” that often deliver inconsistent voice quality at best, businesses are investigating VoIP’s more reliable service options. The best choice is a VoIP carrier that uses privately managed IP protocol to transmit voice data packets via T-1 lines. This allows for better management of the service and prevents over-subscription, which can cause poor quality or “fragmented” calls and slow access speeds. Make sure to ask your carrier about the network they use to transport VoIP calls. The best service will come from calls that only exist as IP on your T-1. If your carrier is not using IP protocol via private T-1 lines, it is a good idea to ask them about any quality guarantees and about the over-subscription safeguards they use.

The reason? When it comes to communicating, the stakes for business owners are simply higher. Most of us don’t mind a little static on our weekly calls to Grandma, but when it comes to negotiating a million dollar contract, confirming a block of reservations, or trying to calm an irate guest, clear voice quality is critical (especially for making a 911 call).

If you’re investigating VoIP for the data features, consider the following issues:

Legacy Formats. If you make the decision to switch to VoIP, will you be able to use your existing telephone equipment? Many call centers use traditional switches to route phone calls and are understandably reluctant to replace entire systems with costly new equipment. Ask your provider about Integrated Access Devices (IADs) that can be installed to convert VoIP packet-based information back to traditional legacy formats, giving you access to new technology without buying new phone equipment

Internet or Internet Protocol? Ask about the data networks used by your VoIP provider. If they plan to use the Internet to transmit your calls, be prepared for inconsistent voice quality at best. When making a decision, consider the difference between carriers who use public bandwidth to offer Internet services, versus those who use IP protocol to carry the VoIP traffic over a private, dedicated T-1 connection. The latter is the best solution as the quality of service is tightly managed for speed and maximum clarity. For example, one user’s activity cannot influence another user’s data traffic, which is the case when public bandwidth is used. As stated earlier, the best service quality will come from calls that only exist as IP on your T-1. The next best service is from calls that travel over a Private IP network. The poorest quality comes from calls that are being sent over the public Internet.

911 Compliancy. One of the biggest issues surrounding VoIP is emergency 911 calling. When using VoIP via the Internet, it may not provide the E911 operator location information and thus would only be considered a “second-line” service – meaning that it cannot be counted on for E911 access. This means if 911 is dialed from that location, the 911 operator cannot discern where the call is originating and therefore has no idea where to send emergency vehicles. However, VoIP provided via IP protocol using T-I lines ensures connectivity to the public switched network and is therefore 911 compliant.

Be prepared to read and hear a lot about this exciting new voice technology in the coming months, especially as lawmakers continue to grapple with how it should be regulated. In the meantime, consider how VoIP can make a difference in your business.

Jeff Blackey is Senior Vice President of Marketing for US LEC, a telecommunications carrier providing integrated voice, data, and Internet services throughout the Eastern US.

[From Connection Magazine April 2005]-888

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