Prepaid Section: Blast Off! SIP Launchpad for Value-Added Prepaid IP Services

Posted: 03/2002

SIP Launchpad for Value-Added Prepaid IP Services

By Fred Dawson

looming sea change in the way voice over IP operates appears to spell significant new business opportunities for prepaid operations affiliated with carriers in the IP voice space.

The linchpin to this shifting IP communications scenario is a fairly simple, straight-forward concept embodied in a signaling code known as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which is used to augment the set of routing instructions that reside in the IP packet header. SIP allows any IP message to communicate with any SIP-equipped PC, server, router, smart phone, mobile or other device to set up a direct peer-to-peer link for any kind of two-way communication.

SIP proponents say telecom resellers not only will discover a SIP-based approach is simpler and cheaper than building a prepaid operation on the traditional VoIP platform known as H.323; they’ll also find SIP-driven prepaid provides an application-development and delivery environment that easily opens the way to creating other new revenue streams.

“SIP gives us the ability to market our application server on the basis that a service provider can develop any type of new service just as easily as you can a web site,” says Roman Shpount, vice president for software development at aTelo Inc., a supplier of IP communications products built around SIP-controlled server software. “Historically, people have purchased calling card-specific platforms that don’t extend into other applications, but that’s not the case with our application server. Our customers look at prepaid as one of many applications that they can offer, including unified messaging services, voice-activated dialing, VoIP connections to call center attendants, conferencing and just about anything else you might want to do with IP.”

Surge of Support

SIP, now a standard, has come on rapidly in the telecom world after a gestation period of several years in the backwaters of technology debate and development. Ever since Microsoft Corp. signed on last fall to use SIP in the new version of its Windows Messenger communications software, major players in VoIP have been shifting to adaptations to a SIP-based services environment, some in deals specifically linked to supplying network termination points for anyone making a call from a Messenger-equipped PC, others simply to take advantage of the application-friendly SIP platform.

“SIP is now much less on the fringes of the marketplace as a result of Microsoft’s decision to make it part of (the new PC operating system) XP,” says Henry Seinnreich, distinguished member of the engineering team at WorldCom. “For us, the decision to move forward with IP communications services this year is based on our ability to demonstrate that, using our self-developed SIP server, we could meet management requirements for developing meaningful call features and moving them quickly to execution.”

What makes SIP so compelling, Seinnreich and others note, is the information identifying the nature of the communication, setting up the call and controlling it is embodied in the IP communications packet. This means that each session can be structured to include not only two interacting parties but other SIP-equipped locations where special features or information can be brought into the communication without requiring that everything be managed from a central switching or provisioning location.

In its simplest iteration, this operating environment means two people communicating via devices that run SIP can call each other via IP packet streams without requiring the involvement of a VoIP service provider. But, in terms of the commercial potential for service providers, this environment also means virtually any type of enhancement can be added to a two-way call or multi-user conference from remote servers over the IP network, whether or not the service provider serves as the provider of the primary voice services for those end users.

For WorldCom, which began its foray into IP voice last year by weaving IP communications into its IP VPN, private IP and web center service offerings, the flexibility of the SIP platform opens the door to adding new services and features continually even before the company’s initial offerings have had a chance to take hold in the marketplace, Seinnreich notes.

“We’re not waiting for the Big Bang,” he says, in reference to sales volume. “We’re moving to Phase 4 in our IP communications strategy with the addition of IP Centrex, voice mail, instant messaging and unified messaging.”

Prepaid Platform

The flexibility and value-add potential of a SIP-based prepaid platform has persuaded ECI IP Inc, the service application subsidiary of telecom hardware supplier ECI Telecom, to become another early adopter of the technology, following several years of marketing a prepaid platform based on H.323. “We launched our second-generation H.323 prepaid product in ’98 and recently moved to SIP, which seems to be the heir-apparent protocol in VoIP,” says Jim Simak, general manager and vice president for R&D at ECI IP. “We’re offering a prepaid-in-a-box turnkey solution that is the basic command-and-control center for prepaid services, including pricing control, inventory control and overall management control.”

SIP overcomes a lot of difficulties associated with implementing PC-to-phone service, Simak says. “It allows us to extend the prepaid service set to the enterprise desktop and to offer many long-term benefits to the end user, such as find-me and follow-me service, with the ability to have prepaid service over IP independent of the local access links,” he explains.

The new model for prepaid also brings greater freedom of choice to end users, Simak notes. “End users can subscribe online, look at their bills, learn what services are available and dial around for the best deals in situations where there are several carrier options available with the prepaid service,” he says. “The service provider can roll out, manage and clone new services, and the end user can manage the accounts themselves, recharging on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, using an interface with CyberCash for secure payments, if they don’t want to use their credit cards.”

In the Field

It’s too early in the game to be naming customers, say executives at ECI IP and aTero, but they say many service providers are in field trials with plans to move to the SIP prepaid platforms in the near future. In fact, marketing director at SIP software supplier
dynamicsoft Inc., Howard Zonder says, SIP prepaid applications are likely to pop up everywhere in conjunction with the widespread shift to SIP on the part of carriers and service providers. “If you’re deploying SIP-based VoIP and you want to offer prepaid, you have to deploy SIP prepaid,” Zonder says. “It’s really a matter of the pace of the SIP uptake, which has really picked up over the past few months.”

For example, he notes, several Internet telecommunications service providers,
including dynamicsoft customers Net2Phone Inc., deltathree Inc. and Callserve
Communications Ltd. have signed agreements with Microsoft to terminate SIP traffic from users who have installed the new Messenger or are using the new Windows XP operating systems. In so doing, these carriers are in a position to handle SIP-based communications from other sources as well.

“The environment now is, show me the money,” Zonder says. “Let me start with something that’s well understood like messaging, prepaid calling, Centrex or conferencing on the assumption that the end points are traditional phones, and, then as the end points become more intelligent, I can extend the capabilities of those services.”

An example is the ability to create a conferencing solution that allows standard phones to be interconnected to calls from Windows XP-based PCs, which is something a lot of people are working on. “The excitement that SIP creates is that you can take an understood application like conferencing and extend it, which in the case of XP could mean using the ‘presence’ features of Windows to allow you to connect all parties to a call with the click of a mouse, no matter where they happen to be when the call is initiated,” Zonder says.

Development Environment

A key benefit of a SIP-based development platform like dynamicsoft’s is its support for seamless connectivity to web servers and its power to pull information from a variety of sources into the communications server. Not only does this allow for gaining access to information across multiple server bases, it also allows the communications server to call on resources within the network on an as-needed basis, eliminating the need to provision everything from a central location.

As explained by Zonder, the way prepaid using SIP works begins with the fact that SIP is separate from the content of the IP message stream, which means the call setup and management can be flexibly adjusted to whatever the calling environment might be. In the example of a prepaid call from a “black phone,” the call goes into a SIP-enabled media gateway where it’s translated to IP. At the same time, the SIP signal contacts the applications engine, which connects to the billing server for authorization and determination of how much money is in the prepaid account. Once the call is authorized, the media gateway sends the call over the IP backbone to a distant media gateway, where the call is handed off back to the PSTN for connection to the called party.

Once the call has been connected to the SIP messaging system at the media gateway, many other applications can be offered as feature options from various application servers, such as IVR or conferencing. “The beauty is the AppEngine treats all components as individual components on the network, which allows you to independently scale up the application features in one category without having to scale up everything, as is the case in non-SIP environments,” Zonder says.

Toolkits such as those, which dynamicsoft, aTero and ECI IP supply, are designed to allow anyone accustomed to working in the “servlet” application construction environment of the web to add applications to the service mix. This extends the business options down to the small operator level, where a prepaid service supplier can adjust service offerings to client needs quickly without resorting to heavy investment in new platforms or IT consulting services. “SIP is enabling a convergence of services at cost levels that just weren’t possible before,” Simak says.

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