Government taking the lead on voice over IP

ATLANTA?"Switched circuit is dead," Neal Shact says.

Shact can be forgiven his bias. In addition to being chief executive officer of CommuniTech Inc., an Elk Grove, Ill., manufacturer of IP telephony equipment, he also is a founding member of the Voice Over IP Council, a promotional trade group.

Whatever the market status of switched circuit, the traditional telephone switching technology, VOIP is definitely alive and healthy. Vendors at the SuperComm trade show this week said government is leading the way in moving voice services onto IP networks.

"VOIP is hot in government," Shact said. "The federal government is one of the few places with money to spend right now."

BroadSoft Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md., makes VOIP software for managed service providers. Scott Wharton, the company's vice president of marketing, said government outsourcing of VOIP services is starting to take off.

"We just started seeing some deployment to the government this year," Wharton said. "Right now, they're ahead of the curve. We see most of the adoption in the university and government market."

Economy, continuity of operation and disaster recovery are big selling points for the service in government, he said.

CommuniTech and BroadSoft operate at opposite ends of the VOIP spectrum. CommuniTech is announcing new software for its Clarysis mobile IP phone, designed to be used with a notebook PC on the road. BroadSoft is touting its BroadWorks software, which provides the functionality of an IP public branch exchange at the network level.

"Our application is more like a Class 5 switch, built to be carrier class," Wharton said.

Voice over IP has evolved from a geeky way to avoid long-distance charges to a mainstream technology that adds functionality and economy to a phone system. An IP voice system can be easier to manage, cheaper to administer, and can bring added features to a desktop handset. And because it is IP, anyone with a network connection can remotely access an office phone system, including all the functions it offers.

That is the purpose of Clarysis. It is a compact one-piece phone that connects to a notebook through a Universal Serial Bus port. Used with VOIP software on the notebook and an Internet connection, Clarysis has the same features on the road as the desktop handset in the office once a user is connected to a network. Calls to a office extension will ring to the remote phone, and calls from the remote phone are dialed out as they would be in the office.

Because of low long-distance rates on government contracts, the ability to make calls remotely through the office system can be an attractive feature to federal workers. It also can provide emergency backup during times of crisis.

"During the Iraq War, a lot of places at the highest level of government ordered Clarysis phones," including the White House, Shact said. He does not know how the phones were used.

SoftPhone VOIP software from Cisco Systems Inc. supports Clarysis. CommuniTech announced at SuperComm new middleware that will let Clarysis work with VOIP software from Avaya Inc. of Basking Ridge, N.J.

At the other end of the spectrum, BroadWorks software from BroadSoft is being used by Computer Sciences Corp. and Science Applications International Corp. to offer hosted services to federal agencies. BroadWorks, which can scale to support millions of users, is deployed by the service provider in data centers. At the customer site, IP phones are plugged into the LAN. No other equipment or management is needed if IP phones are used. A gateway can be used to link analog phones to the IP network.

Wharton said office or enterprise voice over IP, using an IP PBX, is a maturing technology now moving into the mainstream. Network-based VOIP offered as a service is still in the early adopter phase, he said.

He said he hopes the government's continuing emphasis on outsourcing and its present relationships with network service providers who could add VOIP to their portfolios will quickly move network-based telephony into the mainstream.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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