Voice over IP (VoIP) technology may well usher in a new communication paradigm for the enterprise, but it could also be tough on telecom service providers.
That was one of the insights provided by high-tech pundits at VON Canada, a communication technology conference held in Markham, Ont., from May 18 to 20 that gathered industry insiders and commentators to present their views on the telecom sector's future.
Among the crystal-ball gazers was Jeff Pulver, a VoIP advocate and VON Canada's organizer. He described a future wherein big businesses connect with each other directly, bypassing the public-switched telephone network (PSTN) and leaving carriers out of the loop.
"There's no reason why one large enterprise can't talk to another large enterprise peer to peer, IP PBX to IP PBX," Pulver said, noting that in his estimation, IP presents an opportunity for businesses to have more control over their communication infrastructures.
However, Pulver also outlined some of the barriers that stand before this peer-to-peer vision. He pointed to regulations, saying that governments should not regulate IP-based telecom services. "Give a window for things to grow," he said, explaining that IP would mature in the market, and stagnate in a highly regulated environment.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is reviewing VoIP regulations these days. The Commission recently put out a public notice saying local VoIP service provided by incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) like Bell Canada and Telus Corp. should fall under the same rules as do PSTN-based local voice service.
According to Robert Barry, a telecom industry analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group Inc., VoIP could seriously disrupt Canada's communication landscape, including regulations. He pointed out that IP lets new kinds of carriers into the telecom game. Witness cable companies like Shaw Communications Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. These firms are chatting up VoIP as they plan to unveil their own versions of the service.
Barry said these newcomers make it difficult for regulators to segment services and service providers. He added that the CRTC might have to change the way it approaches telecom regulations to account for the new market entrants.
Mike Kologinski, executive vice-president of marketing at Allstream Corp., an IP service provider, presented the results of a survey that his company conducted in an attempt to understand what Canadian businesses thought of VoIP.
Kologinski said Allstream learned that among Canadian enterprises, 15 percent are already using VoIP in their communication environments. Allstream also learned that 21 percent of enterprises "definitely will adopt" the technology, 46 percent "probably" will adopt it and 17 percent are not very likely to adopt.
Kologinski also noted a trend among companies considering VoIP: enterprises that rely on IT to take care of voice communication are more likely to be interested in VoIP than are companies that employ separate telecom groups to manage the voice infrastructure.
John Yoakum of Nortel Networks Corp. told the VON Canada audience to expect a future of "hyper inter-human connectivity," wherein features coming into the mainstream today, such as find me-follow me, and presence, are the norm.
However Yoakum also said network equipment would have to smarten up somewhat, so the network would know to when send calls to a person's cell phone, for instance, without requiring that the person tells the system to do so. "Systems ought to take care of that for us."
Larry Shaw, director general, telecom policy at Industry Canada, a federal government department, said competition in the communication sector should change dramatically as cable companies turn on VoIP services, telcos turn on TV-type services, and even electricity companies crank up data access services. He also raised the notion of an "X over IP" future, wherein voice, data, video, wireless services et cetera all travel according to the Internet protocol.
Joe Rinde of telecom consultancy Rinde Associates talked about IP's "killer app," noting that there's no such thing, but in time a group of applications, a "killer collection," would rise to the top of the IP feature pile.
Rinde said the best way for businesses to learn the difference between a member of this killer collection and a feature that's dead in the water is by experimentation -- try the new equipment, test novel functions. Rinde also acknowledged, however, that experimentation can be difficult for many cash-strapped, over-worked IT departments that simply want tools that get the job done, and have little time for R&D.
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