VoIP quality still weak, but new technologies bring hope

Quality concerns have proven quite a hurdle in rolling out voice-over IP technology in the enterprise. Today's CIOs would be happy to grab it but won't until the bumps are smoothed out. One new service promises to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Voice-over IP (VoIP) is supposedly poised to take off this year, but legitimate concerns about its quality for business use could be a deployment stumbling block. It’s an issue CIOs need to be cognizant of, as quality concerns clearly can affect customer, client, and internal relationships.

“We can’t afford to upset our customers with a bad connection,” explained Norman Davidson, a systems administrator and manager at a southeast plastics manufacturing company, as to why he’s not implementing VoIP just yet. “ [Customers] are used to, and expect, a certain level of clarity and call quality when calling us with product and support questions,” he added.

The current VoIP quality level is a disappointment to Davidson because the idea of combining traditional phone and Web-based customer queries into an integrated IP call center “has a lot of appeal,” he said. He, along with many CIOs and corporate managers, are not rushing to install VoIP for two main reasons: the public Internet’s unpredictability and the fact that today’s enterprises have no control over packet delays and packet loss. Delays can cause packets to be received out of order, which makes for a confusing conversation, or packets can be lost altogether, which can cause gaps in the conversation.

Yet as this article will detail, hope—a.k.a. better VoIP quality—is dawning via new technologies.

Quality enhancement coming
Many VoIP equipment vendors and service providers have been trying to assail quality concerns by focusing on ways to improve the transport of packetized voice traffic. Service providers are implementing technologies, including multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), tiered services, or packet tagging, to prioritize VoIP traffic. For their part, equipment vendors are offering MPLS, bandwidth management, or traffic-shaping tools that allow authorized customers to give VoIP traffic higher priority over corporate backbones.

Unfortunately, the reality is that these technologies are not widely deployed. And even if they were, there would still be problems when voice traffic traversed more than one provider’s networks—such as when a customer using one provider tries to make a VoIP call to a company that uses another provider.

New vendor, new approach
But one technology provider, Global IP Sound Inc. (GIPS), is taking a somewhat different track to solve the quality issue.

The company’s approach is uncommon in that it assumes up front that network quality is beyond an enterprise’s control and that the network will introduce lots of problems for VoIP traffic.

The two-year-old GIPS, a Swedish company just moving into the U.S. marketplace and based in San Francisco, has expertise and intellectual property in the arena of sound-quality improvement. GIPS has taken that expertise and packaged it into its SoundWare software. The application sits at the edge of an IP network and improves the quality of sound even in harsh conditions where there is as much as 30 percent packet loss.

Specifically, the GIPS algorithms attempt to correct the VoIP problems of packet delays (packets arriving out of sequence, jitter, and packet loss), which contribute to poor quality sound.

The software is designed to be embedded in edge devices like IP phones, PCs, or gateways—places where companies have the most control when deploying a solution—which are the end points of a VoIP communication. Users don’t need providers to reconfigure their switches or provision special services for SoundWare to work.

Important partnerships
To get its software installed on these devices, GIPS is taking an almost “Intel Inside” approach to market. They want CIOs to be aware of the benefits and sound-quality improvements their software brings to the VoIP picture. In turn, they hope CIOs will ask for these features in the PCs, IP phones, and voice gateways they plan to buy. That’s why GIPS is partnering with a wide variety of companies, including networking components and equipment manufacturers, VoIP software companies, and service providers.

In December 2001, SoundWare received eXpressDSP Compliance status from Texas Instruments (TI). This gives an equipment manufacturer using TI's digital signal processors—which are widely used in communications equipment—a higher level of technical performance and interoperability assurance for the software running on the chipset.

In November 2001, Comuniq announced that it will license and integrate SoundWare onto the Comuniq Streaming Media Access Server (SMAS) media gateways, which are used to enable VoIP communications. The SMAS media gateway with SoundWare is expected to be commercially available in the first quarter of 2002.

In October 2001, global communications service provider nikotel Deutschland AG licensed GIPS’ SoundWare technology. Nikotel will integrate SoundWare into its VoIP offerings.

And last March, Pingtel, a provider of Java-based IP phones, soft phones, and management tools, licensed SoundWare to integrate it into its Pingtel xpressa Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) phone appliance.

The diversity of these types of partnerships—in which component manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, and service providers are all involved—has had some success in the past. One example is the modem technology partnership between competitors U.S. Robotics and Rockwell Semiconductor, who worked cooperatively on the pre-V.90 standard for 56K technology.

Let’s hope the VoIP scenario plays out as well and that the pundits' visions of VoIP hitting full speed comes to fruition sooner rather than later.

Are you using VoIP today?
If so, how are you handling the quality issue, and what insight can you share with members? Send us an e-mail or start a discussion on what’s clearly going to be a critical technology for the corporate enterprise down the road.


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