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Lead Voice over Internet protocol claims spur disagreement

Reminders of seismic shifts seem to be all over the place in this classroom at La Jolla Country Day School.

A mural depicting the seven continents takes up one entire wall.

But school employee Quoc Vo is more interested in the computer cable running the length of the ceiling.

The cable extends to the opposite wall, near the place where the classroom has its telephone.

The phone is a new addition, and it runs on Internet protocol.

Translation: It doesn’t use a phone line. It uses a data line, sharing the same cable as the school’s computer network.

It’s a reminder that here, and all over the country, the technology pushing calls through phone systems is changing.

Internet protocol, or “voice over IP,” seems to be the coming thing.

Vendors and system integrators are trying to interest customers in Internet-based phone equipment.

They see customers in large and small companies ready to upgrade their enterprise systems. They also see customers among the big telecom carriers.

Think of the savings, vendors say, though other observers say claims of savings are probably exaggerated.


Consumers Are Unaware

It’s a subject that holds a fascination for phone company execs and information technology types. Arguments over cost savings probably perk business owners’ ears.

Meanwhile, as the technological continents shift beneath them, telephone users are oblivious to what’s happening , and probably want it to stay that way.

“Nobody wants to know what’s under the covers,” said Adam Stevenson, product marketing manager with Continuous Computing Corp.

Continuous Computing is one San Diego company creating the seismic shift. The private, venture-backed firm sells voice over Internet protocol electronics to Alcatel, Cisco, Ericsson and Lucent , equipment vendors who turn around and sell their equipment to carriers.

The company this month brought out a new, 8-port gigabit Ethernet switch in the “CompactPCI” size. The achievement in this piece of hardware is that it handles greater amounts of information , or more bandwidth , in the physical space it is allotted, Stevenson said.

Nuera Communications, Inc. is another San Diego company providing voice over IP equipment to carriers and other companies.

Its equipment links Internet telephones to the public-switched telephone network, as well as to cable and to wireless infrastructures. Customers include Sprint and Net2Phone. AT & T; Strategic Ventures is among the private company’s backers.

Whether Internet phones save money is an open question.

Vendors and systems integrators insist they do, and conventional wisdom argues for replacing a long-distance carrier with the Internet.


– Mixed Message

Yet a recent report from Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., says companies will save money only in specific circumstances.

The June report, titled “IP Phones: Better, Not Cheaper,” says customers can expect better equipment prices and more standardization by 2003.

Right now, Internet phone systems cost about as much as conventional systems, the report says.

And for now, it continues, Internet protocol phones may be best suited for companies spread out among many branch offices, or companies where many employees telecommute.

Companies moving to new offices may also want to spring for new IP phones, the Forrester report says.

Of course, some enterprises like to mix old technology with new.

“Nobody’s going to trash their (existing) phone system,” observed Carl L. Silva, a vice president at Science Applications International Corp., which performed the system integration work at neighboring La Jolla Country Day School.

A typical customer probably wants to save pieces of their existing phone system, like the voice mail unit, Silva said.

In the school’s case, trustees chose to add an Alcatel voice over IP system while keeping their conventional Lucent private branch exchange, or PBX. The old PBX had just been through a $75,000 Y2K upgrade.

By adding the Internet protocol phones, the school saved itself the work of stringing wire to the 80 percent of the classrooms that needed telephones.

Quoc Vo, the school’s information systems manager, estimated the new wiring would have cost $1,000 per room. Some 70 rooms needed phones.

SAIC also customized the IP phone system for the school’s unique needs by integrating a paging system, Silva said.


– Internet Telephony

Interoperability and ease of modification will be hallmarks of the voice over Internet protocol era, noted Neil Salisbury, vice president of marketing with Nuera Communications.

“I think that eventually, everything is going to go voice over IP,” he said.

Representatives of Nuera and Continuous Computing also talked of remarkable new services that will become available via Internet telephony.

These include unified messaging, where a person can get voice mail through a computer, or Web-based e-mail via telephone.

Other telephone-based applications may allow a user to record a conversation with one keystroke, said Silva.

There are probably applications “that we haven’t thought of yet,” Salisbury said.

Still, not everybody feels ready for Internet telephones.

Take the Navy.

The service’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, also known as Spawar, is rolling out a wide-area network of massive proportion. It will cover 300 Navy and Marine Corps shore installations from Guam to Iceland.

The first priority for the Navy Marine Corps Intranet is desktop information technology, like computers, said Richard Williamson, a spokesman for Spawar headquarters in San Diego.

“We will wait for voice over IP to mature technologically and for the costs to come down,” Williamson said.

The $6.9 billion contract calls for “voice on the network,” he said. “Whether it’s voice over IP or something else at some point in time, that’s down the road.”

Electronic Data Systems Corp. is the prime contractor for that project.


– Taking The Plunge

The county is poised to go with Internet protocol in its phone upgrade. The county in 1999 awarded a seven-year, $644 million contract to the Pennant Alliance, which includes Computer Sciences Corp., Pacific Bell, Avaya and SAIC.

SAIC has also helped set up voice over IP phone systems at San Diego biotech Sequenom, Inc., at Nevada’s Clark County School District, and for financial services companies Datek Online, Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. and eSpeed, Inc., a division of Cantor Fitzgerald.

Major carriers are also dipping their toes into the voice over IP waters.

Qwest Communications International Inc. announced this month it has deployed voice over Internet protocol in Boise, Idaho. The Denver-based company said it will now spread the technology to other cities in the Midwest and West.

As for quality, the issue has been a double-edged sword.

Forrester’s researchers noted that voice over IP equipment has lost its “tin can” sound. Reliability has also improved, its researchers reported: it’s now better than a desktop computer operating system.

But people don’t seem to like things too polished.

Both SAIC’s Silva and the Forrester researchers noted people like what they’re used to , so equipment makers have taken extra effort to degrade the quality of their voice over IP equipment.

They add hiss, or white noise, to the background of a phone conversation, because users prefer it to complete silence.

Users also expect very short delays while talking on the phone, so equipment manufacturers obliged them with a delay that sets a conversation back 20-30 milliseconds, Silva said.

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