As convergence continues, and IP phones become the norm rather than the exception, watch out for the next big application to hit your network: video.
"From a technical point of view, the challenges of video are similar to voice, but they're not the same," says Eric Bruins, EMEA regional director for network outsourcer Infonet. "The need for quality of service (QoS) is common to both, but the characteristics required for video are completely different."
He predicts that while ISDN-based videoconferencing wasn't hugely popular because the image quality wasn't great and calls were relatively difficult to set up, convergence will change all that. As a result, videoconferencing will make the leap from niche interest to mass acceptance.
"In the IP environment it's much easier, so we will see people starting to depend on it because it's a more efficient communication than just audio. You can use it for collaboration too, to discuss a project, say," he says.
Infonet's interest here is not only that it sells managed multimedia services, including videoconferencing and IP telephony, but that it uses these services itself too. Bruins claims to have won sales thanks in large part to his team's ability to videoconference with the prospective clients.
It's not just video streams though - conferencing also encompasses whiteboarding and application sharing - nor is it the jerky video you might have experimented with, using a Webcam and Microsoft NetMeeting. This is specialist hardware, providing good quality video.
"You can't compare this sort of equipment with a Webcam," Bruins explains. "Desktop IP videoconferencing boxes, such as Polycom or Tandberg, are sophisticated units, like a laptop with a camera behind the screen so you can see the other person looking at you. High quality video conveys emotion more effectively and that's what you need to make videoconferencing replace face-to-face meetings."
Among other things, the hardware works to optimise video quality, for example by freezing unimportant elements of the image such as the background, he says. This reduces unnecessary data traffic and allows the system to convey more of the essential non-verbal communication that makes a videoconference so much more than audio-with-a-picture.
"The issue is how will you prioritise traffic? Doing it straight from the router is the first thing," Bruins says. "We distinguish data, voice and video with different classes of service. For example we have around eight priorities for data alone, to cover high and low priority email, online order entry, and so on.
"Voice is the highest QoS because you need very constant quality, at least as same as the PSTN. Video is a mixture, because you have an audio element and a picture element, and you also have to deal with high quality images so parameters like jitter and throughput are different.
"Some companies separate the video and run it over a private video network. We implement video on our backbone because we have QoS on our MPLS network."
Legacy video kit
For organisations which already have legacy ISDN videoconferencing setups, Bruins says there are two ways forward. Some equipment can be adapted to work on IP, but it is also possible to run combinations of IP and ISDN via video bridges.
These are expensive to set up though, plus an ISDN call is still needed to reach the nearest bridge, so even Infonet only has three - one for each major geographic region - and there needs to be enough bandwidth between them.
There can be protocol issues between equipment too, but Bruins reckons that the videoconferencing vendors realise they have to work together and says the standards should have firmed up in the next six months or so. "Even Cisco realises it has to work with these major equipment vendors," he adds.
The real concerns are not standards but capital expenditure and technical expertise, he argues. Of course, working for a networking company with its own multimedia backbone, he suggests that outsourcing may be the best solution, especially for IP telephony.
"All the hardware providers are moving to IP," he says. "The major PBX vendors are phasing out their traditional TDM hardware, so the CIO has to think about IP, but the question to ask is 'Do I have the expertise in-house?'
IP telephony for fun and profit
"A major trend is that IP also enables the possibility to not invest in hardware any more - you put it all in the network, so you can have one host IP PBX with no branch office PBXs required now."
He says anyone looking at IP telephony needs to consider three things. The first is to standardise on equipment globally, so all the offices run the same equipment and same applications.
Secondly, remember that the costs aren't just head office - there are also phone bills at the remote offices, where tariffs may be higher too. "Typically we'd see savings of 20 to 30 percent for regional offices, just from connecting the TDM PBX to IP," he adds.
And lastly, don't concentrate only on the technical problems around convergence, forgetting the social and business issues: "Contact centres are integrating with other media too - how many ways can the customer connect?
"And the problem for the telecoms manager is his job is almost gone," Bruins adds. "He was responsible for negotiating with the telcos and PBX vendors but now it's all done by one networking company, and the hardware is all in the network."