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VoIP: many different things to different people

According to Market Clarity's "Aussie VoIP List" -  a frequently updated list of companies in Australia providing VoIP services - there were 260 such organisations at 04 June 2007. However this list embraces all those from the very small to the very large providing very different types of services.

The list includes 'true VoIP' players of which the best known, and largest example, is Engin. It has a high profile thanks to extensive, and costly marketing (now ably assisted by 33 percent shareholder Seven Network) and it owns and operates the underlying network which carries its service. It is responsible for the management and operation of that network and for the systems needed to provision services and to bill and service customers.

Many other providers are simply sales and customer service organisations that rely on networks provided by wholesalers such as ISPhone and Symbio Networks. Such organisations rarely disclose the retail VoIP providers that they support. In the case of Symbio Networks its most high profile reseller, ASX listed My Net Fone is well known as it is closely linked to Symbio with which it founders, shareholders and directors.

Also, most of the major ISPs now offer VoIP services. In some cases providing all the technology themselves and in other case reselling services from the likes of ISPhone and Symbio. However these services are generally marketed only to their own customers and available only to customers of their broadband services.

Then the picture gets even more complicated when you look at the range of being offered: from a fairly simple voice service over the Internet to full-blown hosted IP telephony, also know as IP centrex in which the full gamut of business telephone services traditionally provide by a PABX, key system or an old-world centrex service is replicated by technology within the service provider's network and deliver via voice over IP.

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One of the first providers of these services in Australia was IP Systems, using one of the first platforms developed for that purpose the BroadSoft BroadWorks platform. BroadWorks is now used by a number of providers, included Telstra, and briefly achieved heights of fame which were not sustained thanks to promises by Telstra which were never delivered.

In August 2003 Telstra announced the launch of IP centrex based on BroadWorks and its first customer, Westpac Bank, saying that the Bank would have all its facilities, with some 30,000 handsets on the System in 18 months. It never happened: the Bank instead went for an in-house Cisco IP PBX.

Had Telstra's promise been fulfilled, it would have given an enormous boost to the idea of IP centrex. As it is, all the big providers: Telstra, AAPT and Optus have struggled to sign up big high profile customers on their high end IP centrex offerings.

Both AAPT some time ago repackaged its BroadSoft based service for the lower end of the market and Optus has now done the same with its Nortel-based services, recently launching its ipPhone Premier and ipPhone Express services for the small business market.

Optus is pushing these services heavily. That in itself is significant: the number two carrier heavily promoting VoIP to the low end of the business market. That can only be good for VoIP uptake by small businesses: it will lift the awareness and acceptability of VoIP in that space significantly.

Finally there is another offering which has been in the market fairly low key for over a year. The Linksys One system from Cisco subsidiary Linksys. IP Systems has been  the provider in Australia, and a pioneer worldwide. Now with Release 2 of the software out, and with Soul and others set to launch, it could be a significant force in the market: Cisco never gets into markets where it does no aim to be a major player.

Linksys One is neither fish nor fowl. All the software functionality to handle telephone services usually provided by an IP PBX or key system runs in the handsets but the configuration of the whole system is maintained off-site by the service provider, such as IP systems. So any device or the whole system can easily be replaced and the resellers that are the interface to the customer can configure and maintain systems remotely.

VoIP is still in its infancy. There will undoubtedly be much more innovation forthcoming.

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