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Developing standards for better VoIP services

VoIP services are rapidly gaining popularity in Australia and are increasing being promoted as a substitute for the standard telephone service, but much progress will need to be made before they can really achieve this.

VoIP feature Don't miss the iTWire VoIP feature

VoIP provider, Engin has just announced that it will resell Optus ADSL2+ services which it intends to bundle with its VoIP service. Customers will get a phone number, a phone service and broadband Internet access without having to pay line rental. They won't, however get a standard telephone service, but Engin sees this as no barrier: Engin CEO, Ilka Tales, told iTWire that, already 20 percent of Engin customers don't have a fixed line service.

That bodes well for the future of VoIP. However, while VoIP providers like to claim that voice quality on their services is as good as PSTN, this is not always the case: especially if their VoIP service is delivered over a broadband access service over which they have no control.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has mandatory standards for the PSTN that include among other things requirements for conformance to international standards on voice quality, specified by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Such mandatory requirements are some way off for VoIP. However the Australian industry is well advanced in developing the technical and operational specifications that would enable VoIP service providers to provide services to specified standards, and across interconnected networks from different providers.

The work is being undertaken through two working committees within the Communications Alliance (CA). One is looking at how QoS would be specified and implemented in ISPs' backbone networks and the other looking specifically at how VoIP quality would be defined and measured and specified in the traffic parameters being developed by the first working committee. The projects are part of CA's work on next generation networks.

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The VoIP QoS project originated from suggestions presented at a VoIP Forum in Sydney at the end of 2005 organised by CA's' predecessor, the Australian Communications Industry Forum.

The proposal came from Shara Evans, then managing director of Telsyte. As a result of the positive response to that suggestion, ACIF commissioned Evans to produce a discussion paper on the issues surrounding such a proposal. Submissions to the discussion paper closed in June 2006 with about a dozen submissions received.

The ACMA was broadly supportive saying: "End-to-end QoS is desirable industry-wide to properly deliver differentiated services to consumers. This is of particular importance for VoIP services marketed as a substitute for a traditional PSTN service.

Optus felt that the work should be best left to the international standards bodies "Optus' view is that the issue of a QoS Standard for VoIP-to-VoIP calls is best left to international standards making bodies like IETF, ITV-T, ETSI & IEEE for resolution."

Telstra, not surprisingly was even more strongly opposed. Any standard developed and implemented would reduce its role to being one of a provider of bit-pipes. It saw "a somewhat different technology evolution path for voice communications than the discussion paper suggests." Telstra's view was that carriers such as it would be primarily responsible for end-to-end QoS for VoIP.

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"Telstra estimates that next generation networks (NGNs) will be developed as carriers replace their TDM based core switching and access networks with IP or packet based networks that deliver end-to-end QoS to broadband access providers who enter the market and offer voice and other services. Inter-working of these carrier grade networks is likely to be based on dedicated NGN interconnect arrangements which would, themselves, be based on evolving international standards."

A more impartial response came from the UK's telecoms regulator, Ofcom, which described the discussion paper as providing "a particularly well-written and comprehensive survey of the various technical approaches which can be employed to manage quality of service."

However, it too cautioned CA against straying from the path of international standards. "We are trying hard to avoid the development of UK-specific standards in this area, since the UK is simply too small a market for this to be a sensible way forward."

CA is well aware that, with a population only one third that of the UK, Australia can even less afford to stray too far from the path of international standards. And the issues it is dealing with have importance that extends well beyond VoIP.

As ACMA said in its response to th discussion paper: "VoIP is considered as the first of a suite of next generation network multimedia services. It is preferred that QoS approaches be developed so that they may be applied to other NGN services, for example real-time interactive video calls."

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