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Despite what has been a long and inconsistent adoption curve, voice over IP, or VOIP, does have some big believers, especially in the channel, where it promises lucrative contracts and a shot at customers who have never been interested in traditional services. Zoltan Keve of Caleidoscope Communications Co. is one of those believers.

The Vermont-based VAR and his customers are finding, however, that the right switching and QOS (quality of service) products to be absolutely essentially for overcoming VOIP’s vexations.

Caleidoscope, a Platinum-Level reseller for Verizon Communications Inc., already has one VOIP implementation underway, with two more potential customers now in the pipeline.

“A lot of what we’ve done is to sell data WANs—both frame relay and VPNs. At this point, we’re also trying to migrate voice to some networks,” said Keve, vice president of sales at Caleidoscope.

“Telecom is converging to an IP platform, and this is driving down the cost of communications. If you don’t move to IP, too, you’re selling old technology that’s doomed,” he said.

Vermont Legal Aid, Caleidoscope’s first VOIP customer, has been working with the VAR over the past three years to add voice to an existing frame relay network connecting multiple branch offices, said Mike Bayer, the firm’s IT director.

Now, as the law firm looks at expanding VOIP from two to all six of its sites, Caleidoscope is eyeing potential deals with a health care agency, as well as with an ASP (application service provider) for the food and beverages industry.

Caleidoscope nailed down the engagement at Vermont Legal in competition with a number of other nearby players.

“[Caleidoscope] had the most flexible approach, and they understood what we were after,” Bayer said.

But Keve and Bayer have since learned the hard way that, although VOIP can be a cost-effective alternative to other voice services, certain VOIP products on the market don’t seem ready for prime time yet.

“We wanted to build a statewide phone system that would take advantage of our existing [data] network while also allowing voice forwarding,” Bayer said.

“It’s hard to get ‘temp’ legal secretaries, especially in rural areas,” he said. “We want to include call forwarding so that if one of our secretaries is out sick for the day—or doing client intake, or typing a long legal brief—important calls from the court and opposing attorneys can be picked up right away by a secretary at another site.”

But in the initial implementation—which cost the legal agency about $95,000—the voice quality just didn’t turn out to be adequate, Bayer said.

Click here to read about a network troubleshooting tool that allows users to assess their networks’ ability to handle voice traffic and quickly address VOIP problems.

Bayer and Keve both blamed a PBX voice switch from Vertical Communications Inc., which they say “garbled” voice calls over the network.

Forwarded calls sounded even worse. Unlike some other voice switches, Vertical Networks’ product didn’t correct for the “call tromboning” effect that can crop up in VOIP, according to Bayer and Keve. With “tromboning,” the original voice circuit remains even after the call is redirected, resulting in two open voice circuits for the duration of the call, which gives the conversation a deep, echoing sound as if it’s being conducted in a well or a large horn..

QOS makes a difference

Caleidoscope then tried Converged Access Inc.’s new CAP (Converged Access Point) switch at Vermont Legal Aid, which brought some big improvements in voice quality, according to Bayer.

CAP, a product that hit the market in April, is designed to deliver to small and midsize businesses, or SMBs, the same QOS functionality found in the company’s QoSWorks product for enterprise WANs, said Doug Antaya, vice president of marketing at Converged Access. QOS functions can set priorities on different kinds of traffic on a network so that voice traffic continues unimpeded while less-timely traffic waits a few microseconds.

The QOS technology was first developed by Sitara Networks Inc., a company acquired through a management buyout last year and then re-created as Converged Access.

Used by companies that include The Coca-Cola Co. and Bose Corp., QoSWorks is designed to provide toll-quality voice- and jitter-free video-over-IP networks. Other capabilities include identifying traffic contention problems and maximizing bandwidth utilization, according to Antaya.

For less than $1,000, the new CAP product also integrates a VOIP gateway, IP routing, Ethernet switching, built-in security, and an optional wireless access point. Each device supports about 50 network users, and about 25 simultaneous active users, he said. CAP can be used either with or without routers from vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc.

Yet despite the deployment of CAP at Vermont Legal Aid, the agency’s network will continue to undergo “tromboning” until Vertical Networks introduces a feature to prevent the problem, something that Keve expects will happen later this year.

As a result, Vermont Legal Aid isn’t currently using the voice forwarding functionality built into the Vertical Networks PBX switch.

Meanwhile, Caleidoscope has started reselling a voice switch from Nortel instead of the Vertical Networks product.

“I’m highly critical of Vertical Networks. Anti-tromboning is a feature that’s been available for about 20 years now. Not to put it into their product makes Vertical a deficient animal, in my view,” Keve said.

At the same time, though, Keve has come to see its reseller relationship with Converged Access as a competitive differentiator, particularly compared with the CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carriers) that offer networking services to local companies.

“We are able to command a slight price premium—maybe 10 percent more—because we can make the customer’s network work better,” Keve said.

Converged Access performs all of its sales through partners, offering reseller margins of about 35 to 40 percent, according to Antaya.

Services to VARs include marketing, training and technical support. “We have mailers that partners can send out to customers, and Webinars, and we share trade show expenses,” he said.

But in Keve’s opinion, CAP’s ease of use, along with the quality of training and tech support, are Converged Access’ shiniest lures.

“Some people might not even know who Converged Access is—but Converged Access is making me look very smart to customers,” Keve said.

Keve next wants to tackle video over IP, in conjunction with data and VOIP, a service in which an ASP that is a Caleidoscope customer is interested.

“Right now, they have three separate networks: video, voice and data. Here’s an example of where a converged access box with guaranteed access could really be useful. We would propose heavy-duty converged access at every customer location,” Keve said.

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