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Remember convergence? Technology visionaries described a computer nirvana in which all electronic devices would be linked and perform useful tasks: Your refrigerator would know when the milk supply ran low and “tell” the PC to e-mail the corner deli to send more. That future hasn’t come just yet, but convergence never went away. In fact, in some areas, such as marrying phone service with the Internet, it is on the rise. In December, Time Warner Cable made a much-publicized announcement that its customers in some major cities would now be able to route their phone calls through the provider’s cable Internet service. The announcement came on the heels of a Federal Communications Commission statement that the feds won’t subject Internet-based telecommunications to the same kinds of onerous regulations as established phone systems. Matching up the Internet with phone service was inevitable. In the mid-1990s, computer programmers realized that voices could be zapped around cyberspace, just like a corporate Web page. Doing so could eliminate Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) — not to mention long-distance call charges and, maybe, old-fashioned telephone companies. Just as it costs virtually nothing to send an e-mail, it theoretically would cost nothing to transmit someone’s voice over the Internet to another computer. But the first efforts to do so — using a technology called voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP — resulted in poor quality with delays, timeouts and the inability to have “duplex” voice transmission, where both people could talk at the same time. Early users also disliked the physical setup of having to converse by using a headset attached to their computer. But advances in software and network architecture have brought VoIP to the point where it’s now a mature technology. And it doesn’t require talking into a computer anymore. Telephone manufacturers are building VoIP-capable handsets that look and function just like regular telephones. Business momentum is growing: 24 percent of corporate telephone systems sold in 2003 in North America were capable of working with VoIP; by 2007, sales of VoIP systems will surpass sales of POTS systems, according to the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner, Inc. THE COST FACTOR With this seemingly unstoppable momentum, is it time for your firm to switch to VoIP? The short answer: probably not yet. VoIP can reduce overall costs by eliminating duplication in computer networks while offering additional services, such as integrated voicemail and e-mail, that will make keeping in touch easier and more efficient. But the main stumbling block is cost: Companies making the switch will need to upgrade their computer networks and buy new equipment such as VoIP-capable telephone sets and beefier network plumbing, which, depending on the size of the enterprise, can easily run into the millions. Experts say that switching makes the most sense when a business is building or upgrading a computer network. In the long run, however, VoIP will prove cheaper. Right now, most companies maintain two distinct kinds of computer networks. One runs the computer servers and desktop systems that allow employees to send e-mail and call up databases; the other runs the telephone system. It’s very expensive to keep both systems running, and companies will realize savings simply by consolidating the two networks, says Jay Pulz, a Gartner analyst. Plus, with less regulation, we’ll see more competition, and maybe even a PC industry-style price war. Here’s how it works. In POTS, the two people having a telephone conversation have a dedicated line between them. Things get more complicated with VoIP. Data — whether images, text, or voice — is broken up into chunks called packets. The packets are then zapped electronically to their destination. The problem with voice transmission is that the packets don’t necessarily travel together. Instead, they follow the path of least resistance, going where the online traffic is less dense. Somehow, they all end up at the same place — another computer — at more or less the same time. This is not a problem when the data is a Web page. Computer users are accustomed to seeing pages materialize in stages. But it can be a problem with voice. What happens when packets don’t get to the other person at the same time? Usually, it means dropouts or delays. Think of it as a Star Trek transporter beam that doesn’t get all of Captain Kirk aboard the Enterprise in one piece. “When voice over the Internet works, it’s pretty good,” says Pulz. “But when it’s bad, it’s pretty awful.” This problem will likely be solved in a couple of ways. First, the software is getting better at making sure all the bits get to their destination at the same time. That’s the solution adopted by home VoIP providers like Vonage, Inc. and cable TV providers offering VoIP services, such as Cablevision Systems Corporation, Time Warner and Cox Communications, Inc. ANOTHER ROUTE But corporate VoIP networks use a different method. They bypass the Internet; instead, they route voice transmissions over the company’s dedicated network to branch offices — a loop off the Internet, in other words. (Calls outside the company travel within the network to a “gateway” closest to the called party and are then routed outside the network.) Because this system runs on a network maintained by a dedicated IT staff — rather than on the Internet — there’s less of a chance for dropped calls. Think of it as using the corporate network for voice. But for VoIP to work well, the corporate network typically has to be beefed up to allow for the extra bandwidth, or traffic. With any luck, users will find that nothing really changes in terms of using the phone — the only difference is the way calls are transmitted. VoIP-savvy phones look pretty much like regular ones; when you lift the receiver, a dial tone comes on. You dial a number and the other side picks up. There’s more to VoIP, however, than imitating POTS. Telecom companies like Sprint Communications Company, which are pushing VoIP, tout new features made possible by the new technology. That’s where convergence again comes into play. Merging e-mail and phone networks will soon bring a new generation of smarter phones into use, allowing users to receive e-mail and store contact information. So instead of scrolling through a personal digital assistant and then using a phone, you could just locate your outside counsel on the phone’s display, look at recent e-mails to remind yourself why you’re calling, and dial while zapping memos back and forth. Fax services and document scanning — indeed, your whole document management system — could be integrated into this kind of system as well. So could desktop videoconferencing. The degree of integration is limited only by your IT director’s imagination — and budget. For those obsessed with secrecy, VoIP offers corporate users a whole new layer of security. Just like computer files, telephone calls can now be encrypted using industrial-strength encryption codes. Like encryption on a PC, the software encrypts the voice files being transmitted. The capability worries law enforcement and other officials, who are concerned that more secure networks mean it will be harder for them to tap phones when needed. This all sounds terrific. But I’m still waiting for my computer to force my kids to clean their rooms.

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