Crossing Over

Posted: 11/2003

Crossing Over
Audio Conferencing
Bridges Digital Divide
By David Alexander

Since 2001, virtually every audio conferencing
bridge vendor has developed either an IP-based solution or a strategy to enter
this space by the end of 2003. There are a number of IP-based platforms available to
enterprise and service provider customers. While the adoption of IP ports has
been relatively limited to date, the anticipated demand for IP-platforms is
likely to generate a surge of revenue and port sales as enterprises and service
providers seek low-cost conferencing solutions.

There are a number of factors encouraging the future migration
to IP by both enterprises and service providers. While Frost & Sullivan
predicts service providers and enterprises are likely to adopt IP-based
platforms heavily in the future, the rate at which this migration occurs is
likely to be quite different in each market sector. However, in either case, the
motives for adopting IP are based on many objectives, including the fact
IP-based platforms:

  • Deliver enhanced levels of ease and flexibility
  • Offer
    greater cost benefits over traditional PSTN audio conferencing
  • Are easily
    operable with many operating and billing systems

Currently, the strongest demand
for pure IP-based systems has emerged in the enterprise marketplace. While IP
port deployment is still relatively low for enterprise clients, IP functionality
has become a key factor in adoption decisions. Many enterprises have already
begun investigating the future cost and feature benefits that an IP solution can
offer, however, investment in PSTN conferencing ports continues.

In addition to enterprise users becoming increasingly tech
savvy, the slowdown in the economy has forced many organizations to evaluate the
future impacts that current purchase decisions are likely to have on their
organizations. In addition, many IT teams are not only interested in what
they can do to meet their conferencing needs today, but also are looking at what
solutions are likely to allow them to integrate IP ports into their existing
platform in the future. By adopting an audio platform that allows IP expansion,
enterprises are able to extend the longevity of their purchases, and are not
faced with legacy or unusable equipment in the future. This is the premise that
validates current IP investment and development by audio conferencing bridge

Although in the near-term bridge vendors may face sunk costs
in IP development, IP functionality is becoming a key element in the enterprise
decisionmaking process and is likely to lead to market share gains in both the
near-term and long-term. Therefore, IP development in anticipation of demand is
becoming key to success and growth in the enterprise market.

Although demand for pure IP platforms within the service
provider community is just beginning to emerge, their overall consumption of IP
ports in the future is likely to far outweigh demand from enterprises by 2007.
Up to now, many service providers have been hesitant to adopt IP ports into
their conferencing infrastructure. Not only is this hesitation based on looming
skepticism surrounding QoS (quality of service) but also the extensive
investment many service providers have in legacy PSTN conferencing
infrastructure. In order to combat these QoS concerns, audio bridge vendors must
assure service providers that IP platforms can be managed with virtually zero

Despite such efforts, many service providers are likely to be
hesitant to scrap existing PSTN conferencing infrastructure that is in good
working condition. IP network buildout is slowly emerging among some of the top
service providers. However, Frost & Sullivan does not expect widespread
adoption of pure IP platforms to surface until late 2005 or 2006, when IP
network buildout is more extensive and quality concerns have been sufficiently

H.323 VS. SIP

As mentioned earlier, audio conferencing bridge
vendors are investing heavily in their IP conferencing infrastructure as the
migration to IP further progresses in the enterprise and service provider
markets. The two primary IP standards that are utilized among audio conferencing
bridge vendors are H.323 and SIP (session initiation protocol).

H.323 is, in fact, a suite of communication protocols for
packet-based multimedia communications, call and media control, security, codec
specification and data conferencing. The fact that a simple voice conference
needs to negotiate all these protocols makes H.323 highly complicated, hampering
its scalability. H.323 was the first standard developed to enable real-time
communication over packetbased IP networks and was instrumental in driving the
transition of video conferencing over ISDN to IP. H.323 enjoys the advantage of
having received widespread industry approval, which explains why a number of
vendors have adopted this protocol. H.323 is a stable standard, that has
achieved large-scale deployment. H.323 utilizes the Real-Time Protocol (RTP/RTCP) from the
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), along with internationally standardized

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is an IETF signaling
protocol that focuses on session initiation, modification and termination. SIP
is a text-based protocol that is a lot easier to implement than H.323, which is
based on binary encoding. Some industry experts argue that SIP is less complex, highly
scalable and flexible, while others in the H.323 camp believe that this does not
make up for SIPs weaknesses in QoS.

Today, H.323 is the most widely deployed standard for IP and
is supported by a global coalition of companies working in a joint effort to
provide interoperability. SIP is a new signaling protocol that is growing in popularity.
The most likely scenario is that major vendors are likely to support both
implementations until it becomes clear which one is likely to prevail, or if the
two are likely to merge. Microsofts adoption of SIP in Windows XP is leading
many to believe it is likely to do wonders for the protocol and catapult IP
telephony from being largely a niche application to one that is likely to find
mass acceptance.

There are an increasing number of arguments within the audio
conferencing bridge market as to which of these standards is better and which is
likely to provide the greatest benefits for the future. Many vendors within this
space have decided to develop either H.323-only applications or SIP-only
applications, and others have decided to invest in both. However, a majority of
vendors that are currently operating in H.323 only environment have shown a
concerted effort in adopting SIP standards into their IP infrastructure.

Since SIP environments have a greater capability to offer
scaled solutions that increase port count or efficiently distribute resources,
SIP delivers an effective means for vendors to easily scale up and scale out.
This has led many bridge vendors to explore the opportunities that SIP
integration can add to their IP offerings as an evolutionary strategy for
protocol support. In addition, many bridge vendors have noted that the interest
levels for SIP-based platforms are increasing quite rapidly, as attention to
this protocol becomes more prevalent.

David Alexander is industry manager, Multimedia/Conferencing
and Collaboration Group, at Frost & Sullivan.

Frost & Sullivan

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