Over the next few months, IP-based carriers will start introducing innovative new voice and data services, and will give customers extraordinary control over the services they buy.
Starting with rudimentary voice over IP, the carriers will then offer advanced capabilities, such as Centrex, and gradually develop more complex features, such as a combination of voice, e-mail and fax messaging.
In conjunction with customer devices that are under development, carriers could develop advanced services such as Dolby stereo audioconferencing, desktop voice and data conferencing, and phones that integrate with Web browsers, says Ike Elliott, vice president of softswitch-enabled services at Level 3 Communications. "There will not be limits anymore," he says.
Underlying these innovations is a switching architecture based on devices known as softswitches, which are workstations that control calls on IP networks much like circuit switches do in traditional circuit-switched voice networks. These flexible devices support the rapid development of the application software that defines the new services.
Several developments last week indicate that IP carrier networks are coming of age:
-- AG Communications introduced iMerge, hardware and software that translate all familiar voice-call features of Centrex -- such as three-digit dialing, conference calling and voice mail -- so they can be delivered over IP networks.
-- Frontier Communications committed to using a programmable softswitch architecture that supports new services, including customer self-provisioning of bandwidth on demand.
-- More than 50 vendors met for the first time as the International Softswitch Consortium to speed development of new carrier services and promote interoperability of devices within and among softswitch networks.
-- Start-up ipVerse pledged next month to detail soft- ware that will enable the rap-id development of new IP carrier services.
Bringing Centrex services to IP networks is important because it will show customers that these new nets can reliably mimic traditional circuit-switched voice networks, analysts say.
"I look at IP Centrex as a feature you have to have to play in the market as a voice-over-IP service provider," says Chris-topher Nicoll, a senior research analyst at Current Analysis in Sterling, Virginia.
Once IP carriers prove themselves reliable with a familiar service like Centrex, customers will trust them with more advanced services that are still under development, says Deb Mielke, principal with Treillage Network Strategies, a consultancy in McKinney, Texas.
Frontier is starting down that road. The local and long-distance carrier is building a fiber-based IP backbone network and says that later this year it will start rolling out voice-over-IP services.
By the middle of next year, the company will be letting customers provision bandwidth on demand that will be ready for use in 15 seconds.
For instance, customers who need an extra T-1 for a month-long project will be able to directly provision the bandwidth via a Web interface and then cancel it when the project is finished.
In the meantime, Frontier will also start offering a unified messaging service that blends features of voice networks and the Internet to give customers a single access point to voice mail, e-mail and faxes.
To speed the development of such services, the International Softswitch Consortium plans to focus on interoperability among devices necessary for softswitch networks, Level 3's Elliott says. That, in turn, will speed development of the application software that controls services.
As part of that effort, ipVerse next month will introduce its call control and routing system, which tells softswitches how to handle each customer connection. For example, a service application could tell softswitches how to use resources in a carrier network to track down a customer who has bought a follow-me phone service.
Some of these applications will be written by customers, says Lew Bobbitt, vice president of marketing at Salix, a company that makes gateway switches that are part of a softswitch network architecture.
A large enterprise call center might write its own software to control how incoming calls are handled, for instance. That software would be used to tell the carrier network how to route calls, Bobbit says.