Voice over IP (VoIP) is set to transform telecommunications in the next five to 10 years. And with telecom companies moving their telephone calls from circuit-switched telephone networks to packet-based data, there have been calls for U.S. telecom regulatory policy to change as well. Neal Shact, CEO of CommuniTech Inc., a telecommunications equipment vendor specializing in headsets, video, and audio teleconferencing equipment, spoke to InfoWorld Senior Analyst Wayne Rash about the FCC's hearings and what VoIP solutions in the enterprise are going to look like.
InfoWorld: The FCC has been conducting hearings involving the VoIP industry. What effect are these hearings going to have on the industry?
Shact: I think it's going to encourage the industry. One of the potential clouds on the horizon was what kind of an action would the government take? It appears that the government is going to be taking a relaxed approach to VoIP, and allowing it to grow a little bit more and flourish before they firmly decide what to do. Overall, they've been quite supportive of the industry.
InfoWorld: What effect is this going to have on traditional circuit switch telephony?
Shact: There are a lot of factors contributing to the circuit switch world adopting and embracing IP telephony. Part of it has been the rise of new companies entering the industry. One potential obstacle was government action. It now looks like that won't be the case at the early stages, and therefore the people with large investments in circuit switch are looking to embrace VoIP and to figure out how to make it part of their business plan and their business future.
InfoWorld: Is IP telephony the wave of the future?
Shact: There's no question about that. I think the research and development on switched circuit is all but dead, and it's a question of IP-enabling the old or going to a fully IP-deployable solution. … Not only do we have the current players that have been involved, there are many signs of people like Microsoft planning a very large and active presence in this market. There's going to be some very powerful new entrants as well.
InfoWorld: What are the manufacturers of traditional switching equipment doing to help make that transition happen?
Shact: If you look at people like Nortel (Networks Corp.), Siemens (AG), and Avaya (Inc.) -- and Alcatel to a certain extent as well -- they've introduced pure IP products but, more importantly, they've also come up with ways to IP-enable their current products and platforms. That's created, for both corporations and for carriers, the ability to evolve instead of having to pull out the old and plug in the new. The strategy that these companies have taken allows people to adopt IP at a pace that they feel comfortable (with).
InfoWorld: What is that solution going to look like for the average enterprise?
Shact: The average enterprise is going to have a variety of choices. I think the benefits of IP and converged communications is you're going to see businesses having the ability to both make and receive information requests. I'm trying to avoid using the word "phone calls" because it's going to be a combination of text messaging, phone calls, and video inquiries, and it's going to be according to what customers want and how people respond to those. But it's going to go way beyond a simple phone call and an answer.
InfoWorld: How is the IT manager who runs an enterprise looking at this? Are they as ecstatic as the industry is?
Shact: Well, probably not. Within companies, you have a lot of different directions. The IT manager is one of the happy guys; the telecom managers have got their own set of issues. The convergence of voice and data is creating some problems, both cultural and technically, to the staff of these various companies. It creates a very complicated new set of issues. These kinds of technologies require a different infrastructure, and as I always say in this business, some assembly is required. Although the solutions are introduced and announced as turnkey solutions, it usually involves multiple vendors and teams of people to get these products successfully deployed and implemented.
InfoWorld: So there's a lot of work ahead for the IT staff, no matter how they go with VoIP?
InfoWorld: You mentioned earlier that the FCC is staying away from regulating the VoIP industry at this point. What are the reasons for that, beyond wanting to encourage the growth of the industry?
Shact: Well, you just named one of them. But I think it's very hard to figure out how you would in fact regulate this sort of industry, because once voice is converted to a data packet, it's impossible to distinguish that data packet from the data packet that's part of a text message or an e-mail or a Web search. So it creates some very difficult issues. Also, the government has been very aware that the current regulatory environment is an outgrowth of the industry deregulating from a monopoly environment. (There have) been a long series of judicial decisions and court hearings and state regulatory authorities making decisions that have all sprung out of this deregulation. So there's a rather complex maze of regulations in place. And although VoIP looks and acts like regular telephony, it is a fundamentally different thing. The government recognizes there's no need to burden a new technology with the regulatory structure that was required to deregulate the traditional switched circuit world.
InfoWorld: What effect is this going to have on CommuniTech?
Shact: Well we're really excited. We have a number of IP products that we manufacture and distribute. What we call in the industry endpoints or station equipment would be the old world term or the switched circuit term for it. We see the demand rising enormously. The more people have got VoIP, the more they're going to need kind of the endpoint solutions that we provide. So we're ecstatic, as is the rest of the industry. There's very much a sense in the VoIP world that our time has come. -- InfoWorld (US online)