Voice over IP (VOIP) and convergence are two terms that have come to mean significant cost savings, improved productivity and a whole new way of working to corporate and residential users in most parts of the world. But for Africa, under a highly regulated telecommunications setting, this reality mainly invokes a sense of things still to come.
While telecommunication solutions in Europe, the US and Asia apply equally well to Africa, much groundwork in terms of carrier network transformation needs to be done. And this evolution will see circuit switch operators moving to soft switch type applications. Nortel Networks' success in these markets does however offer some indication that VOIP, as the de facto communications transport protocol, opens up vast scope for improved services from operators, alternate carriers and ISPs alike.
Daniel Blais, director of marketing, carrier networks, France, Middle East and Africa at Nortel Networks, says that worldwide, broadband access is the key driver for VOIP adoption. Broadband access over an unbundled local loop essentially opens up opportunities for alternate carriers to gain direct access to the end-user, and to offer the type of triple-play solutions (Internet access, voice and TV/video) that make a valid business case for ADSL deployment.
"High-speed data access simply doesn't cut it anymore. To improve the business case, carriers have to provide more than cheap Internet access. In France and the rest of Europe, for example, the reality of voice and video applications over broadband is ensuring the greatest inroads."
He adds that corporate concerns relating to security and performance have now been largely addressed by mature VOIP solutions, resulting in better acceptance of VOIP and contributing to its overall growth."Enterprise outsourcing of data services through IP VPNs places carriers in a position to provide hosted VOIP services over this IP VPN, again a booming market in Europe and US. The real value of VOIP, however, will be brought to task through the provision of hosted multimedia services that introduce improved communications efficiencies across the organisation," Blais says.
"We are seeing a strong move to value-added multimedia services, with a variety of PC-based integrated applications linked to a phone for a more complete multimedia experience in the form of 'presence', instant messaging, file sharing, click-to-call and personal agent features. All this represents the enhancements that can be brought to a VOIP solution for an improved person-to-person working experience and greater corporate efficiencies."
In Africa, where corporate data services are deregulated, Nortel Networks believes the first application to make an impact will be hosted VOIP solutions, something that will effectively drive VOIP into the African market. And, as broadband access becomes deregulated, aggressive competition will facilitate the large-scale deployment of triple-play services in the residential market.
"Hosted multimedia services in the corporate environment will ultimately be rolled out to the mass market. And, as broadband access is extended to the residential market, more competition, reduced pricing and multimedia services over this medium will start to make an impact."
The components that will make up an IP-based, multimedia enabled infrastructure would consist of a super-class soft switch that combines all the features and functionality of a typical carrier voice network. The strength of Nortel Networks' product portfolio in this regard, was in porting the feature software of a DMS circuit switch to their CS2000 carrier-grade soft switch coupled with their MCS5200 multimedia application server platform offering multimedia and collaborative services based on SIP.
"Our carrier class VOIP portfolio is based on open standards to allow carriers to deploy best-in-class gateways and applications to best meet their customers' needs. The growth in the VOIP market will furthermore see IP phones, video phones and devices for wireless LAN applications that will drive the 'richness' of the overall solution," says Blais.
Migration of the corporate network onto an IP VPN is the first step for organisations to go from where they are today to a sophisticated data network that connects their various sites. The second step is a converged networking infrastructure, and moving voice traffic onto that network. The next, or final, step is to add a multimedia server and client software to access services. The foundation of any solution, however, relies on a carrier-class IP network that can handle voice with carrier-grade reliability.
While VOIP has been praised for the cost savings and improved productivity offered by a converged, collaborative environment, multimedia services can add value in a number of other areas. Education is key to Africa's advancement, says Blais, and Internet-based multimedia capabilities will come to represent a powerful tool in the efficiency of education between schools.
For example, the reach of a subject expert at one school can be expanded without displacing the teacher. With broadband access to the home, learners can collaborate with each other or teachers around the world through a multimedia interface. This will effectively broaden the reach of education in Africa.
Broadband access will also ensure that home workers can get access to the same quality voice and data that they would have in the office, stimulating tele-working for improved productivity and communication efficiency. "Work is not a place, it is something you do," says Blais.
"The evolution of carrier networks will be marked by the 3GPP Release 5 architecture that will allow service transparency via centralised applications servers that are independent of access types and devices. We are seeing a clear convergence of wireline and wireless applications, to enable services of both worlds to be used over one converged network, with single unified end-user services profiles. Nortel Networks, itself, has merged its wireless and wireline products under one entity to facilitate that evolution," Blais concludes.
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