Tapping the Net for phone service

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Internet telephony is a rapidly growing technology that combines the traditional services of voice and data in a way that conventional services cannot.

For the business marketer, Internet telephony allows phone calls in real-time throughout the world for lower fees than conventional phone service. But it also offers a wide variety of multimedia for creating virtual offices -- real-time videoconferencing that can enable collaboration, enhance worker productivity and increase efficiency.

Internet telephony is growing

While still fairly new, Internet telephony is growing. According to a survey from International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., use of packetized services -- sending voice and data online -- will reach 11% of all phone traffic by 2002. That's 151 billion minutes based on total minutes for domestic/international calls.

Using Internet telephony is also well within the reach of moderate to large companies, says Rona Shuchat, IDC's program manager for residential and small-business communications, especially since those who can't afford their own private gateways to the Internet can still get these services through a local Internet service provider.

For most users, much of the initial savings shows up first with long-distance phone use.

Jo Lee, public relations manager for VocalTec, an Internet telephony company based in Northvale, N.J., says that Internet telephony opens up an immediate and obvious advantage for a multinational company with branches worldwide.

"Internet telephony makes sense, especially when making international calls where the fees remain exorbitant," Ms. Lee says.

Instead of going through a regular phone line, a person can dial through their company's phone system to a gateway, enter a number and get transferred through the Internet to the number they're dialing in real-time, and with no real cost.

The quality of voice over the Internet is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from that of standard phone lines. "Many of the traditional phone services are using Internet telephony to transmit customer calls without the customer being aware of it," Ms. Shuchat says.

Internet telephony is also a tool to enhance communication and problem solving. "Integrating voice and data together lets you do more than either does alone," says Ms. Lee. "As an example, normally you'd do a report and then send it out for approval, receive it back and then revise it and so on. This eats up a lot of time, especially when working with people located in other countries.

"Now, instead of all that, you can just go to a virtual office online, conference in real time and have everybody able to speak and see each other as well as the materials being worked on."

Possible applications

Other possible business applications include training seminars, worldwide meetings and conferences, and product presentations. Control is maintained as well, since doing this on a company network eliminates having to use the technology from a third party like AT&T Corp.

Facilitating the growth of Internet telephony is the development and promotion of protocol standards for its use -- such as VoIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol, which builds upon and complements existing telephony standards.

Another, Microsoft Corp.'s TAPI initiative, integrating telephony with PC use through the Windows operating system, enables the PC to integrate voice and data through a common standard -- the Windows operating system platform -- where the OS drives the voice/data together.

"Microsoft has been building in support for telephony for some time," says Mark Lee, product manager for Microsoft's Windows NT Communications Group.

Mr. Lee points out that this integration is well-suited for the everyday sending of voice, fax and e-mail, as well as for customer service.

"For example, a customer viewing a Web site can press a button and then speak to a service representative right there in real time by using a microphone on his PC, and without having to hang up and dial a separate number," Mr. Lee says.

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