VoIP: A Look Behind the Hype

By Allen Bernard

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Well, it's a good news-bad news situation. If you are interested in voice-over IP (VoIP) telephony the technology is finally up to speed. That's the good news. But, if you want it installed at your corporate headquarters or connecting all of your employees with the promise of unified messaging, you may have years to wait.

Take Boeing, for example. It has a corporate-wide roll-out plan but VoIP won't be installed at corporate HQ until the very end -- seven years from now, said Graham Jones, director of IP Convergence at Integrated Research, a cross-platform systems management firm. At another of IR's customers the problems are a little different, but the results are the same.

"One of our customers, Keyspan in Long Island NY, they have this curious problem where there's actually a budget but they don't have enough people to go around and visit desktops and put the new phones on desktops, to install them and to train people," said Jones. "They just don't have the people to do because they've been downsizing for the last couple of years."

Dust Off

For corporate America the promise of VoIP has fallen victim to budget crunches, the recession, downsizing, and, other, more pressing IT challenges over the past few years such as Y2K and consolidation. But, as corporations begin to dust off plans for once promising technology initiatives like unified messaging, VoIP is slow is making its way back onto the corporate IT radar.

But, while most CIOs are interested in VoIP from a cost savings and integration point of view, they are reticent to commit their entire voice infrastructure to the new technology for any number of reasons. The Federal Communication Commission is just beginning to debate such things as access charges (which VoIP circumvents in most cases), 911 location identification issues and the FBI's inability to tap conversations carried out over IP networks, to name a few, said Phil Asmundson, managing partner of Deloitte's Telecom practice.

Of course, there are also are security concerns. Denial-of-service (DOS) attacks today shut down e-commerce servers, networks and email but do nothing to interrupt voice traffic. As more companies commit to VoIP expect attacks aimed at the phone system as well, said Jones.The Promise

Still, the ability to eliminate the parallel voice and data networks most companies support today combined with the unified messaging VoIP enabled phone systems promise to provide, and you have a pretty compelling cost-cutting and value-add proposition.

Then there is the promise of true mobility, i.e. no longer will you need a cell-phone, and a Blackberry and a pager, you simply take your corporate extension with you wherever you go and you are plugged into the network; able to receive voice, email and fax messages all through the same line at the same time.

"It's almost the logical way to go," said Jones. "You would not invest in an old technology PBX now because there's the converged applications that are coming. There's the promise that we don't have to discriminate on the networks between data and any sort of communications traffic, which opens up boundless possibilities for getting services anywhere."

This is why many companies are toying with IP telephony in one way or another. According to ABI Research, in 2001/2002 most deployments were simply IP-enabled PBX seats utilizing the corporate WAN to save on inter-office voice traffic toll charges. By 2006, 90% of the predicted 26 million new IP-PBX seats, however, will be on all-IP systems.

Limited Roll Outs

Today, most deployments are taking place either in regional offices that require better communications capabilities, greenfield deployments or when companies (mostly small companies) finally retire old PBX systems. And this trend is not expected to change anytime soon, said Mark Uncapher, vice president and council for the Information Technology Association of America.

"Back six-years ago there was this sense that VoIP was just around the corner," he said. "And, it's still today, a little hard to get your hands on how many customers there are really."

Asmundson believes some 10% of enterprises have some VoIP deployments while IR's research indicates 56% percent. But even Jones admits this number is skewed somewhat high in IR's recent survey of 2,800 IT and telecom managers. Still, the message is clear, VoIP is making its way into the reality of enterprise life, it may just take a little longer to get here than anyone thought six years ago.

"The biggest thing to come out of the survey for us is people are still going to pilot or have small deployments for the next 12-to-24 months," said Jones. "The roll-out of very large deployments over 2,000 phones is not happening. It's still puttering on."