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Fewer than half of U.S. small and midsize businesses have enough confidence in the security of Voice-over-IP systems to invest in the technology, according to a recent survey.

Despite recent research indicating two thirds of SMB companies believe VOIP systems might give them a business advantage over competitors, the new survey found only 48 percent of small and midsize companies trust the security of IP telephony solutions currently available.

Security concerns help explain the turtle-paced adoption of VOIP, which advocates of the technology have been pushing for years as the future of voice communications.

“Pretty alarming,” is how Brian McCarthy, chief operating officer of IT trade association CompTIA, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., characterized the security concerns.

The fear indicates that small and midsize companies have serious reservations about moving their phone service to the same data networks they use for computing and Internet access. High-profile breaches in data networks, in some cases exposing confidential user information, have been headline fodder periodically in recent years.

Interestingly, however, 65 percent of participants in the CompTIA-commissioned poll said they trust the security of Ethernet data networks. In addition, 76 percent said they trust the security of traditional telephony systems and 55 percent trust the security of local wireless networks.

These results indicate that VARs, integrators and vendors have to put more emphasis on selling the robustness of IP telephony systems, just as they have in their ongoing successful push to highlight the need for data network security, McCarthy said. The message must be that not only are VOIP solutions reliable, but they are also secure, he said.

Small companies rely heavily on their phone service for day-to-day business, so they can’t afford disruptions, he said.

“If a small business’ phone system is down, it’s going to have a huge impact on the business,” McCarthy said.

The survey, conducted by International Data Corp. for CompTIA, found that delays and disruptions in voice and data communications are costly for SMBs.

Disruptions in voice and data communications occur at least monthly for 60 percent of the respondents, and 70 percent of those occurrences hurt business. Eight percent of SMBs said the impact of the disruptions puts the business at risk, while another 28 percent said they lose some business. Thirty-four percent said their customers require additional care as a result.

According to the VOIP Security Alliance, the greatest threat to VOIP systems is from deceptive or fraudulent behavior, such as illegal call monitoring, denial-of-service attacks, false caller ID and eavesdropping.

To address the issue, the alliance is pushing policy makers to address behavior instead of imposing technology-related rules that the group says may hurt growth and prevent innovation.

Brent Davies, security practice manager at VL Systems Inc., a VAR in Irvine, Calif., reacted to the CompTIA survey results with a mixture of understanding and excitement.

“I appreciate the opinions of those who are skeptical about the security of the available solutions because I know about how the failings of the products of the past have created these skeptics,” Davies said.

But the reason for excitement, he added, is that currently available solutions are more reliable. “Solutions available today in the areas of IP telephony, LAN, WAN, security connectivity, threat defense, and trust and identity, all include advanced security technologies and features,” he said.

Peter Sandiford, president of Level Platforms Inc., Ottawa, said he wasn’t surprised by the survey results. Level Platforms a year ago added VOIP capabilities to its managed services platform, through which providers take over remotely IT functions for customers, but the company has found that few partners actually have taken advantage of it.

“I think the benefits are not obvious yet,” Sandiford said. Benefits for a small business to adopt VOIP would include integrating phone service with Outlook and other applications, he said.

Sandiford added adoption of VOIP by small businesses may pick up in 2006, and when that happens the VARs and integrators using Level Platforms’ technology will take advantage of its VOIP capabilities.

Sandiford’s instincts may yet prove correct. CompTIA’s poll found that 31 percent of respondents said likely will have greater confidence in the security of IP telephony systems within the next 12 months.

In a separate survey, also conducted by Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, two thirds of small businesses indicated they see a competitive advantage from adopting VOIP technology. Forty percent are currently evaluating a converged solution, while 18 percent are deploying a solution within the next 18 months, and 13 percent have already done so, the survey found.