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For years a technology known as VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) has served as an esoteric incarnation of ham radio, allowing its tech-savvy practitioners to make free but faltering long-distance calls through desktop computers.

For years, a technology known as VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) has served as an esoteric incarnation of ham radio, allowing its tech- savvy practitioners (read: geeks) to make free but faltering long- distance calls through desktop computers.

Now VOIP is going mainstream, and some say it will revolutionize voice communications every bit as much as
the work of Alexander Graham Bell. Companies of all kinds, from major telecom carriers to small firms eager to slash phone costs, are deploying current products and developing new ones, all designed to break phone conversations into small data packets and send them traveling over new communications networks in the same manner that E- mail, Web pages, and even those geek calls now travel over the Internet.

The first and most dramatic changes will be among the carriers, which see VOIP not only as a new revenue stream but also as a way to build a new infrastructure. But a few early adopters within the corporate sphere are already rolling out internal pilot tests of Internet protocol­based telephone systems. “Right now, the [corporate] market is at a very embryonic stage,” says Jim Hourihan, vice president of marketing at Woburn, Massachusetts-based Pingtel Corp., a manufacturer of IP telephones. “It’s happening among the very early adopters–some would say the lunatic fringe.” A survey conducted by research firm Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Connecticut, however, suggests broader interest; the company found that at least 40 percent of large corporations have some sort of VOIP testing under way.

At the carrier level, there already is widespread agreement among industry observers that the massive circuit-switched telecommunications network–built on systems that maintain an open circuit between callers for the duration of a call–must ultimately bow to an Internet model, which breaks up data–whether an E-mail or a voice conversation–into tiny packets, transports each packet via whatever route is available, and reassembles them in the proper order at the destination. Since data traffic now exceeds voice traffic, and since voice can be handled in the same manner as data, many experts say it makes more sense to have a single architecture that can handle everything, rather than the current hybrid of IP and circuit-switched telecom.

Initially, voice transmission encountered problems when handled via IP–the packets have to arrive in the right order to avoid the sort of stammering conversations that were the hallmark of early VOIP experiments. But experts say that had less to do with the network and more to do with using a computer as a phone. New “endpoint” devices designed for VOIP can eliminate those problems and provide the same quality as traditional phone calls.

In fact, you may already have made an IP phone call without realizing it. Calls placed over the public switched telephone network can be easily converted to data streams using devices called IP gateways. Marthin De Beer, general manager of the enterprise voice and video business unit of San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems Inc., says that in the past five years, many companies have begun to use IP networks to connect the private branch exchange (PBX) systems of individual offices, a technique known as toll bypass because it avoids the cost of moving such calls over local and interstate telephone networks.

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