Ensuring Quality of Service on VoIP Networks

Like most countries boasting modern telecommunications systems, Australia has been implementing Voice over IP (VoIP) services. After a slow start, what began as a mild flirtation is now becoming an embrace, although use of VoIP technology is still in relatively early stages compared with market expectations.

Figures from VoIP provider Optus Telecommunications show demand nearly doubling in Australia in the 2002-2003 period, and the company expects the trend will accelerate even more rapidly this year and next.

“There’s an enormous amount of development going on in VoIP,” says Paul Budde, one of Australia’s most prominent telecom analysts. “Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon. And because VoIP is an IT product rather than a switched voice product, you suddenly have an enormous amount of new things you can do with it.”

Talk Is Cheap, But Is It Clear?

It may be flexible, and it certainly is less expensive than conventional telephony, but VoIP technology still has some issues, such as erratic quality of service. Some of this unevenness may result from use of general-purpose Internet networks, which can be subject to delays in packet delivery that don’t affect static content but can create problems for real-time data streams.

“There are literally hundreds of new companies that have come from an IT perspective and have never been really with voice, but are now looking at all sorts of new opportunities,” Budde notes.

One such company is Cortec Systems, based in Australia’s second largest city, Melbourne. Cortec is developing a product — for which it has recently secured AUD$6 million (US$4.6 million) in venture-capital backing — which it says can guarantee a quantifiable level of service for any given VoIP call.

“Freeway,” as the new technology will be called, solves problems by staking out electronic turf at the inception of a call.

“Users of VoIP demand comparable call quality to their traditional phone systems,” John Siliquini, Cortec’s CTO, tells TechNewsWorld. “Maintaining a network to support ‘real-time’ network traffic, such as voice, is a whole new ball game for the average network administrator. While there are some tools and broad traffic shaping systems available, the quality of each call needs to be guaranteed before it proceeds.”

Quality-of-Service Arsenal

Steve Telburn, Cortec’s vice president of business development, says, “The Freeway appliance uses information generated by the IP-PBX to determine the requirements for each call, and then interfaces with the necessary switch elements to provide a quantifiable guaranteed service quality for each individual call before it proceeds.”

According to Telburn, this method relies on a unique approach. “Modern switching elements, such as layer 2/3/4 switches and routers,” he says, “have developed a wide variety of traffic-management techniques for dealing with quality of service. While a formidable QoS arsenal exists, it can be very difficult for administrators of networks to deploy the right policies and then to do it in a consistent and reliable manner throughout the network.”

Freeway could be employed at several points in the chain — telcos, Internet managers or end users — Telburn says, but its initial release is targeted toward enterprise customers.

Optimizing What Exists

Cortec’s answer, he continues, “is not to propose yet another protocol or packet scheduler that will enable the network to perform better. Rather, the purpose is to use the existing suite of access points — IP phones, et cetera — signaling protocols and traffic-management techniques, and manage them such that a quantifiable service can be guaranteed to applications that require such a service.”

He adds that this will be done automatically and dynamically.

Freeway is still in development — beta testing should begin in the third quarter of 2004 — but the technology has just won the Innovation Award at the 13th Western Australian Information Technology and Telecommunications Awards.

Cortec itself is a product of a three-way synergy between government, academia and business. It grew out of a government-university initiative called the Australian Telecommunications Cooperative Research Centre (ATCRC), administered at Curtin University of Technology in Bentley, Western Australia. Its mission is “to provide a cooperative environment for developing and commercializing the technologies that will drive a new generation of telecommunications.”

Teaming Up on Tech

Cortec’s university-based researchers have teamed up with QPSX, a technology commercialization company with roots in both academia and in Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications carrier. Now operating as an independent company, QPSX was instrumental in developing Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technologies that are now widely used.

The company partnered with three venture-capital firms — Foundation Capital, Technology Venture Partners and Starfish Ventures — to raise the recent AUD$6 million development fund.

“The Australian market is too small to sustain that sort of development,” Paul Budde notes. “You’ve got good people here, and good ideas, but to commercialize it you need to go to the U.S. or to Europe.”

That’s exactly what the Freeway partners are doing. Cortec is in the process of hiring a CEO and management team in the United States, according to Telburn. “We are in discussions with a number of vendors and potential channels and expect to finalize the market entry approach in the next couple of months,” he notes.

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