Texas Instruments tackles VoIP QoS

New tools should help telcos provide clearer calls, but also deliver better video over IP

Leveraging its large installed base of chips used in VoIP gear, Texas Instruments aims to make VoIP better sounding and more reliable with a set of quality management tools called Piqua.

VoIP and other multimedia applications are proliferating on IP networks despite the fact

that IP was originally designed just for data transport at the best quality it could muster.

Real-time multimedia transmissions are sensitive to the packet loss, delay and jitter that can happen on the internet, which can distort calls and video streams. Fatter pipes and other advances have made these applications feasible, but users still have frequent complaints about the quality of VoIP compared with conventional calls.

Piqua will help service providers monitor services, devices and networks, and will even allow the infrastructure to heal itself in many cases, according to Michael Stich, director of service provider strategy at TI's DSP (digital signal processor) unit. This will be important to lower costs for providers, allowing them to scale up voice and other multimedia services to meet demand, he says.

For example, as the number of VoIP users grows in the next few years from the millions to tens of millions, solving every quality problem with a customer-service call or a visit to the subscriber's home or office would be cost prohibitive, Stich says. Eventually, the chip maker wants to use Piqua to enhance all forms of IP multimedia, including IPTV, Internet-based music services, home security and home automation.

The management system will hit the market later this year in products from carrier equipment vendors as well as software partners such as console developers. Motive and Viola Networks already are working with TI to use Piqua with their network management software products, TI says. Some elements of Piqua use industry-standard management protocols and can be used to manage any type of standard gear in the network, but others require equipment based on TI chips, Stich says.

The Dallas-based company makes the chips that power a lot of the VoIP gear already in use, including IP phones, residential and small-business gateway devices and larger gateways used in carrier networks, according to IDC analyst William Stofega. Tying some benefits of a new technology to one vendor's products is often a necessary evil as vendors seek a reward for innovation, he says.

Piqua can use a variety of tools to automatically deal with call problems, TI's Stich says. For example, if the software detects packet delays it can diagnose the cause and reroute the call or change the priority rankings used on the network. For jitter, it uses a dynamic data buffer that change size automatically depending on the quality of the call. If there is packet loss, Piqua can automatically use a "robust" mode that sends the data stream twice so it can recover if necessary, he says.

For VoIP, Piqua is intended to replace the diagnostic tools built into the traditional circuit-switched phone system, in which engineers can quickly determine what's going on between the carrier's network and the subscriber's phone. Those mechanisms are lost when calls travel as packets across an IP network, Stich says.

The system is also designed to deal with problems that come up with other multimedia applications such as video. For example, it could send an alert to the carrier when a subscriber went over an agreed-upon limit for downloading or uploading video content.

With Piqua, VoIP or multimedia providers that owned their own networks would still have an advantage over other providers because they could make more changes to devices on the network. However, in some cases the management system would make things easier for "over the top" VoIP providers such as Vonage, which use another company's network, Stich says. If the network owner sets up Piqua to automatically modify device settings in response to quality problems, the "over the top" provider will also benefit, whereas if they had to make changes manually they would not be allowed into that device to make them, he says.

VoIP frequently lags behind the traditional phone system on standard call-quality measures, according to a study of six US VoIP services by Keynote Systems. The internet performance testing company last year studied both facilities-based and "over the top" providers on factors such as availability, dropped calls and audio clarity. On listening quality, including static, hum, and hiss, the average VoIP call rated 3.5 out of 5, behind even cellphone calls, which were rated 3.6 out of 5.

Industry research company Yankee Group expects VoIP demand to boom over the next few years, but handling technical support for the flood of new users will be a burden for service providers without new technology, says Yankee Group analyst Lindsay Schroth.

"I think they can meet [demand], but they're not going to do it as profitably unless they can address some of these issues," Schroth says.

One of the problems, which Piqua is designed to address, is that VoIP can be degraded by a wide variety of different factors, including network configuration, bad software or faulty home wiring, she says.

"Because it's so many different issues that are at the root ... of call quality, it's hard for [service providers] to bring all that information together," Schroth says.

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