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VoIP has potential to simplify communications, but…

Imagine you are ready to leave the office for a business trip from Jackson to Atlanta. You pack your laptop and important materials. How long of a phone cord would you need to take your desk phone and fax machine with you? Either 385 miles or 2.04 million feet of cumbersome category 3 or 5 cable. However, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) makes traveling with all of the necessary communications equipment much simpler.

“VoIP can get confusing to even the most schooled data or telephony engineer, mainly because there are many different applications and several ways to deliver the service,” said Kevin B. Harper, district sales manager for UCI Communications of Jackson. “Initially, VoIP’s biggest benefit was eliminating long distance charges and, in most cases, that advantage did not justify the expense of implementing it. But within the past year, many other applications have emerged, making VoIP much more practical. Similar to PDAs incorporating cell phones, the same concept is evolving with a laptop and an individual’s desk phone.”

VoIP was declared defunct just a few years ago, but within the last year, phone carriers have been scrambling to unleash aggressive VoIP strategies aimed at consumers and businesses. Among the biggies: Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Comcast.

Still a bargain

Though no longer free as it was when it emerged in the 1990s, VoIP is still a bargain. For as little as $20 a month, it features unlimited local and long-distance dialing, voice mail and caller ID. Even with fees that low, analysts are predicting that VoIP will be a $4-billion market by 2007, topping $4 billion for VoIP equipment alone in 2006. Some four million VoIP subscribers are predicted within three years, a hefty increase over the 378,000 who signed up for VoIP last year.

“Multi-location businesses, from trucking companies and call centers to banks and insurance agencies, will benefit the most from VoIP,” said Harper.

Different types of VoIP vary in name, according to the provider or company, but in layman’s terms they are service-driven, equipment-driven or a combination of the two.

“The service-driven technology is not readily available yet in all places and the carriers are being careful in its deployment because by offering this service, they begin cannibalizing the long distance market,” said Harper. “In this application, the customer never really owns the phone system (switch) because without the service from that provider, the in-house equipment is no good. Therefore, it’s a smart move on the part of the service providers to lock in those customers to their offering. It’s sort of like having a PC that can only get AOL service so that if you leave AOL, your PC is no longer any good. It’s similar to the way a traditional analog phone relies on a switch to do features and route calls. It normally requires a total new data network. The service-driven offering is similar in the fact that the switch is somewhere out in the Internet cloud.”

The equipment-driven VoIP is the most proven type because, in this application, the switch is at the customer’s premise and remains part of a network that allows other locations on the network.

“This does not eliminate long distance anywhere, but rather only to other locations on the network,” said Harper. “By networking multiple locations together, they can all share centralized applications such as voice mail, call center, and switched features. This application can typically utilize the data network they have in place with some enhancements.”

Applications and benefits of VoIP include:

• Unified messaging. A voice mail message is sent to an email address that can be retrieved by sound from a PC, saved or distributed like email. The message also remains in the phone system so it can be retrieved via phone.

• Centralized voice mail. All remote locations on a network can access one centralized voice mail so that all features are redundant, and the cost is reduced because voice mail does not have to be routed through all remote sites.

• Fax messaging. Similar to centralized voice mail, a fax is delivered via email format.

• 4-digit dialing. Business associates in cities like Jackson and New York may communicate long distance by simply entering their extension number, as long as both parties are networked via VoIP.

• Soft client. The user becomes part of the primary phone system when away from the office as long as he is connected by VPN through a broadband connection.

• Call center access from remote site. Like the soft client, call center employees may gain immediate office access to the primary phone system.

“One-location businesses on a tight budget may want to reconsider VoIP right now and go with a less expensive option, but some folks want it simply because that’s the direction technology is going,” said Harper.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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