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The rise of VoIP: opportunities for integrators

The widescale adoption of voice telephony systems in sectors such as corporate and education has fuelled the recent surge of interest in VoIP. But there is some way to go yet before integrators will be in a position to fully optimise the resulting opportunities.

The advent of accessible networking technologies and their potential for delivering easy, effective signal distribution has understandably come to dominate the debate surrounding audio in the built environment over the last few years. But this has perhaps come at the price of overshadowing another, quieter revolution: that of the transition from traditional analogue to VoIP (voice over IP) technologies for the delivery of intercom and paging.

The inspiration to take another look at VoIP was provided by Biamp’s announcement at ISE in February regarding its introduction of a training programme focusing on VoIP certification. Targeted at AV industry professionals, the scheme is designed to help participants build a foundation in VoIP and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), the communications protocol that is used for the signalling and controlling of multimedia communication sessions. Integrators who pass through the course will, says Biamp, “gain the necessary tools and knowledge to design, integrate and troubleshoot Biamp products with VoIP telephony systems”.

Such a development necessarily assumes that there is a pressing need for VoIP expertise among the integrator community. Holger Stoltze, senior product manager at Revolabs, certainly doesn’t seem to be in any doubt: “VoIP is taking over; not understanding the technology or resisting the technology will hurt the business.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to ask a few crucial questions concerning the specific origins of this trend…

Why VoIP… why now?
Martin Bonsoir, EMEIA applications engineering manager for Biamp Systems, makes it clear that the present explosion in interest is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. “VoIP technology has grown immensely over the last few years, becoming quite common in multiple audio solutions such as distance conferencing and paging, across a variety of segments from healthcare to education to corporate business,” he says.

HB Communications has a heritage in designing, building and supporting AV communications environments that stretches back to 1946. The firm’s vice president Northeast, Simon Davis CTS-D, also pinpoints corporate, education and healthcare as the market’s primary drivers. “VoIP provides significant benefits and improvements over a traditional analogue voice system, with increased intelligibility, greater bandwidth and better signal-to-noise ratio. With all that it offers, VoIP technology is here to stay.”

Patti Gunnell, entertainment solutions manager, North America at Riedel Communications, highlights the role of entertainment in contributing to VoIP’s ascendancy, observing: “More productions are done remotely that require communication between multiple sites that are not necessarily in close proximity to each other. The production occurs in a central location and is distributed to other locations where communications to those locations are necessary.”

Domenico Gambino, VP sales for Barix, believes the trend towards using the aforementioned SIP protocol has helped to bring cohesion to this area of the market. SIP, says Gambino, is “very much a reliable standard and has been adopted by most of the traditional communication system solutions from companies like Cisco and Avaya”.

It stands to reason that steadily increasing bandwidth has been – and will continue to be – a primary enabler here. Meanwhile, Davis implies that integrators might also be well advised to think about VoIP on a geographical basis. “If we look specifically at the emerging markets, where they often have the benefit of leapfrogging over older technology, there is significant VoIP opportunity,” he says. “Even in locations where the adoption of VoIP may face possible obstacles (for example, government-owned utilities and replacing or augmenting this lost revenue stream) the technology available that quickly connects people and locations is needed. Ultimately, the technology will win out and the adoption will continue.”

Learning curve
Given this trajectory, Stephen Sandford, product manager at Clear-Com, remarks that “it’s critical that integrators build their knowledge of VoIP, to keep pace with increasingly tech-savvy users who are looking to implement the latest VoIP technologies into their working environments to minimise their downtime, maximise productivity, and make full use of their high-capacity IP networks”.

Bonsoir adds: “Since AV integrators implement these systems, there is a distinct need for systems integrators to be trained and knowledgeable in VoIP, which is a complex technology and not one that is easy to master or gain comprehensive training in.”

Specifically, making the most of VoIP has “necessitated us to train our technicians and Q/A engineers on the methodology of successfully deploying and setting up VoIP telephony cards within a DSP frame and on our clients’ networks,” says Davis.

For those seeking to work in this area, the rise of VoIP has also meant getting to grips with a region of technology hitherto often geared towards personnel from the IT side of the fence. “The actual connection between the two VoIP devices is straightforward,” says Gunnell. “The challenge with VoIP lies with the IT department(s) of the end-user. The problem is with the firewalls and the nature of their corporate network and security policies…” Thus the education required is “more about establishing and maintaining a flexible IT environment”.