Romancing the Phone
By Graham Seabrook
It is very easy to underestimate the power and reach of the traditional phone system. We are all familiar with how to connect successfully to just about anyone in the world–finding, keeping and dialing phone numbers; working with human and automated attendants to locate the called party; understanding and handling conditions such as busy and call-waiting tones; and navigating a variety of interactive voice response (IVR) and voice mail services.
First-generation VoIP applications have sought to replace the user’s existing telephone with a multimedia PC or a dedicated IP phone. Both alternatives require the user to trash his existing telephone–to switch allegiance to a less reliable device and to erase the “telephone habit.” In a corporate setting, this requires that enterprises take a huge leap of faith to replace their tried and trusted PBX systems with unproven IP phones and software servers.
Internet telephony vendors now are beginning to understand that the challenge is not to compete head-on with the existing installed base of phones and the phone network, but to find innovative ways to leverage the specific strengths of both communications tools–to marry the PC with the phone. This is “net-enhanced telephony.”
A striking analogy is found in Amazon.com
(www.amazon.com). In the early days, libraries sought to digitize the full text of their stock. But the big win identified by Amazon.com was to leverage the book, not to compete with it. Net-enhanced telephony seeks to achieve the same synergy between the Internet and the phone.
How It Works
Here’s how net-enhanced telephony appears to the user:
1. The user makes a regular phone call on his existing phone with an access code, like a credit card call. The called party picks up and they chat as usual.
2. The net-enhanced telephony application presents a pop-up menu on their PC screens with “add video,” “present slide-show,” “show movie clip,” etc. They just click on their selection.
3. The called party is prompted on screen to accept the caller’s request, and it is instantly enabled.
The only prerequisite is that both parties have a phone and a Pentium-class PC with an Internet connection that can be used simultaneously. If the callers have low-cost ($75) video cameras, such as the QuickCom from Logitech (www.logitech.com), then real-time video can be displayed.
Here are some of the unique benefits of net-enhanced telephony:
* It works even when the called party’s PC is powered down. The caller need only tell the called party to walk to his PC, power up and connect.
* It works even if the called party does not have any client application installed. He needs only to surf to a web page and view the caller’s video or data.
* Any call can be enhanced even after the voice conversation has been started.
* The caller does not have to know ahead of time what software or hardware the called party has at the receiving end. And, if he doesn’t have a PC, a regular phone call can proceed.
The beauty of net-enhanced telephony is that it leverages the particular benefits of both the Internet and phone networks to create much more compelling and easy-to-use applications. (See Table 1, page 124.)
There already have been some small steps taken to deploy innovative applications over the phone network. These have been typified by the SS7 standards and the associated intelligent network (IN) concepts. The rate of innovation on IN has been amazingly slow in contrast to that on the Internet. In the time that the web has erupted, the IN has managed to deliver only such lowbrow functions as local number portability (LNP), 800 and 900 numbers, and call waiting. Three factors have constrained innovation: the conservatism of the regulated incumbent phone companies, the monolithic character of the SS7 network (each incremental feature requires a forklift upgrade), and the lack of open, standards-compliant server platforms to underpin the deployment of applications.
The challenge today is to apply the light-speed innovation cycle of the Internet to the phone network and to build out the conception and value of a phone call from an audio-only experience. As H.323 client software is already widely deployed on the PC platform, the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle is an application server platform that can be deployed by service providers. For a server platform to maximize the benefit and opportunities of net-enhanced telephony, the following functions are required:
Developer Friendly. Unlike the specialized SS7/IN systems of today’s phone service, the ideal net-enhanced telephony platform should expose a rich, open set of APIs that can be employed to develop and deploy a wide range of applications. By exposing APIs to third-party developers, such a platform can ensure that the maximum number of innovators can come to grips with the network and build compelling and valuable applications. Traditionally, IN servers have depended on UNIX for the ultimate in reliability. In the next-generation network, the value of Microsoft Windows 2000 will be to ensure a larger supply of skilled developers.
Multimedia Capable. The perfect application platform needs to have in-depth support for multimedia streams of any kind–voice, data (for remote presentations, etc.) and video. This is a rarity in the VoIP world as such systems are generally built around circuit-switching backplanes that are suitable only to voice processing. The best route is to build a solution around a fast, packet-switch backplane that can handle data and video as readily as voice. The technical challenge is to marry the real-time media streams handling requirements with the needs of a programmable operating system.
Scalable. Among the drawbacks of IN were that applications were spread across multiple, special purpose systems, and that all of these various systems had to be upgraded simultaneously to test and deploy a new application. A key metric for the next-gen IN is that applications may be developed and deployed incrementally–with access to policy, call-control logic and media streams within a single unified system. For net-enhanced telephony applications to be broadly useful, they must be available widely on service provider scales. Application servers need to have the capacity to process hundreds, or even thousands, of concurrent media streams. This means they need video-capable hardware digital signal processing (DSP) resources that can offload processor-intensive operations from the main CPU.
No New Network. Applications and services that depend on networkwide upgrades are notoriously slow in coming. Ipv6, IP multicast and QoS all have suffered from the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. While H.323 upgrades are available for products, such as firewalls and network address translator (NAT) routers, it is a serious limitation for ASPs to mandate that all their clients upgrade to specific levels of equipment conformance. This is particularly true in the communications space where it is not possible to predict what will be at the receiving end of a call. What is required is a Centrex-style solution where only one new system is required and where this has the ability to pass H.323 via vanilla router, proxy server and firewall products.
Enterprise-Oriented Policy. Service providers need to be able to fine-tune services to meet the specific needs of a set of users and/or specific enterprise customers. Using scarce resources, such as WAN connection bandwidth, should be subject to user authentication, enterprise policy rules and itemized use-based billing.
Secure. Communications and security have long been conflicting goals in network design. Suffice it to say that no service provider can connect enterprise networks without regard for privacy and security requirements. What is needed is a platform that allows enterprises to forge a single, secure relationship with a trusted service provider that offers connectivity to a community of peers subject to access policy–suppliers, customers, partners and investors, for example. The alternative, a mesh of ad hoc bilateral security arrangements, is a potential nightmare.
Available. Nearly all (99.6 percent) of voice calls today are point-to-point calls. No reservation or human operator intervention is required. Similarly, net-enhanced telephony needs to be an ad hoc and fully automated experience to encourage most web users to try it.
VoIP/VoADSL Integration. While
VoIP/ADSL (asymmetric DSL) support is not strictly necessary to implement net-enhanced telephony, being able to integrate seamlessly with the new generation of IP telephones, VoIP gateways and ADSL telephony services is a prerequisite for an application platform to be adopted by
next-gen carriers and broadband access service providers.
System and Network Management. Network operators and service providers require a full suite of system and network management tools and integration with industry standard billing and customer
Graham Seabrook is founder and CEO of Ridgeway Systems & Software
(www.ridgeway-sys.com), a developer of equipment and software for net-enhanced telephony.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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