Connecting the Antarctic

Technology Grows in Polar Summer, Other Public-Sector Programs<@VM>Critical Challenges<@VM>IP Telephony Services Market: Traffic and Revenue Forecasts (World), 1997-2006

By Ed McKenna

When researchers with the U.S. Antarctic Program at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station needed to improve their voice link with the outside world, they turned to Internet telephony, or voice over Internet protocol.

"Voice over IP is the only solution for us," said Jeff Thompson, vice president of technology at Holmes & Narver/McClier in Englewood, Colo., and a chief architect of the system.

For years, scientists at the station, which is managed by the National Science Foundation, relied on a ham radio and out-of-date satellite technology to transmit communications. It was a system that was neither private, trouble-free nor capable of handling the increasing voice and data demands of the research facility, which houses as many as 250 personnel during the polar summer.

The National Science Foundation looked into building an undersea link to New Zealand and a microwave connection to McMurdo station, the larger USAP facility about 800 miles away, to tap its T1 line. With price tags of $200 million and $45 million, respectively, both were ruled too costly.

And so the station instead implemented an inexpensive Internet telephony system using an existing voice over IP gateway at the University of Miami. The communications are routed via satellite to Miami and onward. The phones themselves cost about $350 apiece. Overall, Thompson reported his budget for the network upgrades was about $175,000 last year.

The network architecture was competitively bid, and Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., was selected for the backbone based on price, performance, scalability and durability, Thompson said.

Support services were important. "If something breaks, we don't have spares on the site," said Thompson.

Holmes and Narver have been managing the three USAP facilities on Antarctica ? the South Pole, McMurdo and Palmer stations ? as part of a joint venture with EG&G Inc., Wellesley, Mass., known as Antarctic Support Associates. Last month ASA was succeeded in that role by Raytheon Polar Services Co., Aurora, Colo., a Raytheon Co. subsidiary.

While the voice over IP project is still a work in progress, the Amundsen-Scott station now uses eight IP phones, which, when linked to newly arrived satellite technology in the region, provide vastly improved communications for the station. Researchers intend to install seven more phones this year.

"Voice over IP in Antarctica is in our long-range plan," said Thompson, with implementation planned at Palmer Station and possibly at McMurdo as well.

The NSF, in fact, is studying whether to build a private communications network linking all the stations with a central hub and voice over IP gateway in the Denver area, said Patrick Smith, manager of technology development for polar research support at NSF.

Internet telephony is still a nascent technology in the general market. The South Pole station is one of a handful of public-sector organizations using it. The Department of Veterans Affairs' Veterans Integrated Service Network 15 and the Labor Department's Job Corps program have launched pilot projects to size up the potential of voice over IP.

Internet telephony originally referred to the technology and techniques that enable the real-time transmission of voice phone calls over the Internet. It was seen as a way to reduce long-distance service costs, but some industry analysts now believe voice over IP could some day replace public branch exchange (PBX) or traditional office telephone systems, bringing with it lower network management and maintenance costs and improved system functionality.

And some analysts, in fact, are predicting astronomical growth. Revenue for voice over IP-related services is expected to surge from $1.3 billion last year to $168 billion by 2006, while gateway or software and hardware equipment revenue is expected to jump from $1 billion to $38 billion, according to Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm in Mountain View, Calif.

The chief beneficiaries of these revenues will be industry heavyweights Clarent Corp., Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies Inc., Motorola Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp., who combined held a 90 percent stake in the equipment market last year, said Pete Dailey, managing partner at Frost & Sullivan.

While there are a few federal government users now, it is on everybody's radar screen, said Dave Kelly, director of consulting at Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va. For example, the Treasury Department is looking at the technology as part of its communications modernization, and the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs also are examining it, he said.

This interest is being sparked by technology improvements over the past decade, according to Michael Rau, senior manager of federal consulting engineering at Cisco Federal in Herndon, Va.

Proof of this improvement has been the willingness of carriers and telephone companies last year to deploy the technology in their own networks, Dailey said.

But the definition and role of voice over IP is also expanding. In the four or five years the technology has been around, it has been viewed primarily as a means to reduce long-distance costs through toll bypass, Dailey said.

But the technology gradually has been recast into the broader context of a converged network. Voice over IP is now defined as "a technology that allows a common network infrastructure to transport voice, video and data within TCP/IP [transmission control protocol/Internet protocol]," Rau said.

In this light, the benefits include operational and application improvements through this convergence. For example, organizations can find efficiencies by merging their voice and data management operations, including system administration, directories and security, said Micky Tsui, vice president of Internet and telephony at Nortel Networks.

Furthermore, a voice over IP system can be deployed more quickly and cost efficiently than a traditional circuit-switched network. It also is easier and less costly to manage, Dailey said. "In an IP environment, you have a distributed computing paradigm, so when you want to add services to your network, you can do it with a few keystrokes or by adding a few lines of software code," he said.

Many observers believe the real market driver will come from the applications that can be used to enhance e-business and business-to-business communications transactions.

In the federal market, these applications could be used to boost the services of the Social Security Administration or Internal Revenue Service, said Miles Penland, director of federal marketing for Nortel Networks. For example, if citizens are filing tax returns over the World Wide Web and need help, "wouldn't it be great if they could hit an Internet voice button and be connected with an agent who can actually tell them how to file that tax return?" he said.

While the IRS application has yet to be realized, some federal programs are reaping modest savings from existing installations. Job Corps, for example, saved about $45,000 when it installed Cisco Systems' voice over IP phone system in its Treasure Island center in San Francisco, said Eric Vazquez, director of technology at the Job Corps Data Center, San Marcos, Texas.

The 171-phone system cost approximately $75,000, he said. "We had a quote for a conventional Siemens [system] that was $120,000, and that didn't include the separate voice backbone cabling we would have had to do," Vazquez said.

The implementation is part of a systemwide plan to reduce telecommunications costs at Job Corps. The program is using voice over IP technology to route long-distance calls from its 124 sites around the country over a wide-area network to Chicago, where they converge into a dedicated telecommunication line, Vazquez said.

With this new dedicated line, the program can cut its long-distance rates from 6 cents to 4 cents a minute under FTS 2001, he said. Considering that Job Corps generates 3.6 million minutes of voice traffic a month, the program would save, in the first year, $840,000, he said, noting the WAN should be fully implemented in the next six months.

In the meantime, the IP phones have been up and running for more than two months, and there are no latency issues, echoes or down time, Vazquez said. The Cisco products for the program were acquired from Cisco's General Services Administration schedule, he said.By Ed McKenna

Despite promises of cost savings and other benefits with voice over IP, many government and private organizations remain on the sidelines. In many cases, organizations already have signed up to long-term contracts with their telecommunications providers. Perhaps more important, critical technology issues ? including questions about standards, quality of service and scalability ? still need to be ironed out.

There are, for example, two competing standards for the technology and a third under development. The first is H.323, which is sanctioned by the International Telecommunications Union and represents the traditional telecom industry outlook.

A second, the session initiation protocol (SIP), was devised by Internet Engineering Task Force, and is more Web-centric. SIP was introduced last year and is being evaluated by vendors.

Finally, Nortel Networks has developed the Media Control Gateway Protocol, which may provide something of middle ground. Not yet a standard, it is being evolved into one that likely will be approved by both the ITU and IETF, said Tsui, noting the final form of it will be called H.248.

In the meantime, H.323, approved in 1996 and updated with Version 2 in 1998, is the de facto market standard. "It is the first standard with Windows applications being built for it, and probably the only one that can enable you to communicate across a multivendor network," said Tsui.

But this approval does not translate to total endorsement. On a practical level, H.323 is cumbersome to implement, said Tsui. And thus many researchers are searching for an alternate standard.

Other key questions about voice over IP center on quality of service issues, such as voice latency or even loss of communication, and scalability.

These issues arise because "we are trying to put voice traffic over data networks that were never designed to do real-time traffic," Allain said. For data transmission, the best effort has been considered good enough; if the information does not arrive, it is resent.

"With voice, you can't afford that," so network providers "are trying to obviate the issue by adding quality of service capabilities into the data infrastructure," he said. One solution is new technology that gives priority to voice over data.

Quality of service also can be ensured by "just engineering your bandwidth correctly so that you know you have enough bandwidth to support the voice and data applications that are in play," Allain said.

Similarly, many vendors play down scalability concerns, saying the technology has evolved to include large numbers of users.

But in the public sector, these claims remain to be proved.

"The technology is there to support it [voice over IP] on a small scale where it is interlaced with an existing phone system," said Howard Green, chief information officer for Veterans Affairs' VISN 15. "In 12 to 18 months, the technology might be capable of providing some enterprise solutions."

Of immediate concern to Green is VISN 15's current voice over IP pilot, launched last fall. He said it is a 10-phone system managed out of Kansas City, Mo., that supports a link to Topeka, Kan., where one of the facilities is located, and to South Carolina, where a physician is using telemedicine, he said.

The office plans to expand its use of the technology to replace some of its aging PBXs, Green said. On deck is a 100-user system at an outpatient clinic in Evansville, Ind., which would connect the facility's parent hospital in Marion, Ill., he said.

"We are also looking at putting in a nucleus of IP telephony into Kansas City to support this office," he said.

Acquired off of the GSA schedule, the initial 10-phone system cost around $75,000 to $100,000, according to Green.

YearUnits (Millions)Growth Rate (%)Revenue ($ Millions)Growth Rate (%)
Compound Annual Growth Rate (1999-2006)198% 142%

Note: All figures are rounded; the base year is 1999.

Source: Frost & Sullivan

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