Better quality spurs VoIP

Cheaper, clearer Internet phone service grows worldwide

Friday, Oct. 27, 2006

New and better Internet telephone technology has helped mathematics teacher Anita Grovilkar make an extra $10 to $25 an hour after school, tutoring K-12 students in the United States without leaving her home in Ahmedabad, India.

Her extra earnings may not have been possible last year, say telecommunications experts, who see the technology improvements fueling a worldwide explosion in Internet phone use.

Although voice over Internet protocol has been available for years, VoIP is now catching on small and large businesses alike, as voice quality and reliability improve.

And following close on the heels of these VoIP improvements comes the next big thing: a video version called telepresence, which proponents say will transform video conferencing for business.

Grovilkar and several thousand other Indian and Pakistani teachers recently signed up with Tutors Without Limits of Potomac. Founder Glynn Willett said that without improved VoIP quality that occurred just this summer, his service would not have been possible on such a scale. Willett offers tutoring services to students all over the globe now, using eBay’s Skype VoIP system.

‘‘Skype is a little piece of software that lets you make free calls over the Internet to anyone, anywhere in the world” and chat with up to 100 people at the same time or make conference calls, according to eBay’s Web site.

VoIP’s main advantage remains price, as calls are carried through high-speed broadband lines rather than conventional phone lines.

Also, VoIP systems offer free services that conventional phone companies don’t, including getting e-mail notices of new calls or voice mail and the ability to checking voice mail from a computer anywhere in the world. Customers can also keep their phone number wherever they move.

Government acceptance could be the litmus test for businesses to use VoIP in the Washington, D.C., region, said James Krouse, director of market analysis at Input Inc., a market research firm in Reston, Va.

‘‘While VoIP is becoming more mature, and thus more trusted by government officials, the competitive landscape for government telecommunications is becoming more acute,” Krouse said.

‘‘The influx of these new technologies will compete against the traditional telecommunications powerhouses that are, themselves, evolving to deliver more cost effective and adaptable systems solutions,” he said.

William Gust, managing general partner with Anthem Capital Management in Baltimore, said VoIP has suddenly become a ‘‘hot area” for investment. VoIP systems are being installed by companies, government agencies and colleges.

Two years ago, Anthem invested $10.6 million in privately held Qovia Inc. of Frederick, which develops software for IT professionals to monitor and manage VoIP networks.

Amid some uncertainty, the company laid off 16 employees last year, but this year it is growing rapidly by ‘‘caring and feeding” VoIP systems, said Stephen Mank, Qovia’s new COO.

‘‘It has picked up a lot this year. We are a private company but I can say that we have enjoyed triple-digit growth each quarter this year,” Mank said.

Qovia’s customer base has grown from companies with a few hundred systems to those with tens of thousands of systems, he said. Leading Qovia clients include Cisco Compatibility of San Jose, Calif., Nortel Networks of Brampton, Ontario, and NEC Corp. of Tokyo.

The company helps clients understand the technology, including troubleshooting problems with a new a version of its IP Telephony Manager product, released Oct. 11, Mank said.

‘‘Everybody loves it because it scales up better then anybody else’s,” Mank said of the new product. ‘‘It is capable of looking at hundreds of phones at once and track problems even as simple as, ‘Hey, our calls stink.’”

VoIP problems are not unlike those of conventional data-based systems.

‘‘It could be a problem with the connection, a public switching network router or a trafficking problem,” Mank said.

Gust considers Qovia the world leader in network management technology for VoIP.

‘‘That’s right now,” Gust said. ‘‘It gets more complicated as the world takes it on and you are managing an enterprise, for example, with hundred of thousands of employees moving around with their computers televisions and cell phones.”

With VoIP’s overseas calls as clear as domestic calls and as reliable as regular phone services, business usage will reach ‘‘a critical mass within 12 to 18 months” where troubleshooting problems will become more of an issue, Mank said.

So far, the Federal Communications Commission has not indicated whether VoIP will be regulated as heavily as other telecommunications industries, according to the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., or even whether it will be regulated at the federal or state level.

The association predicts rising usage and lower costs for VoIP.

‘‘As the VoIP market expands, international calls will shift from circuit-switched to VoIP networks, resulting in lower average costs, which in turn should boost call volume,” according to a new report from the group. ‘‘We expect average costs to continue to decline, falling through 2007 before rising in 2008–09.”

Vonage Inc. of Holmdel, N.J., a leading VoIP provider with more than 1.6 million subscribers, signed an agreement last year with Verizon Communications of New York to access Verizon’s wireless and land-line 911 networks for VoIP customers. Vonage has grown from revenue of $50.7 million in 2004 to $269.2 million last year, according to business information company Hoover’s.

Telepresence, the video version of VoIP, will soon take off, Mank predicted.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Sanctuary Program in Silver Spring has successfully tested telepresence to bring education on the nation’s underwater ecosystems to classrooms and living rooms.

‘‘A year from now you are going to see the video version going the same route as voice over Internet,” Mank said. ‘‘Businesses now using special transmission lines for conferencing will no longer need them. Already big players such as Microsoft and Cisco are all talking and making huge investments in telepresence.”

On Monday, Cisco Systems announced its entry into the telepresence market.

‘‘Video conferencing has long been plagued by the detached feel of talking to a television set, often with awkward audio delays and jerky video,” Cisco said in a statement. The company’s new technology is capable of ‘‘orchestrating corporate meetings between far-flung parties that it claims will deliver a vastly more intimate experience.”