Internet telecom standard to distinguish data, audio/video

A new protocol that reserves bandwidth on the Internet for time-sensitive applications will allow telecommunications companies to charge more for audio and video transmissions than they do for data, executives said at a conference on Internet telephony here yesterday.

Many companies are looking to the RSVP (Resource Reservation Protocols, also known as Reservation Setup Protocols) specification to improve the quality of Internet applications that require high bandwidth. For instance, packet delays result in choppy Internet telephony conversations and delays in video streams sent over the Internet, too.

Representatives from British Telecom, Nortel, GTE, AT&T, MCI Telecommunications, Alcatel, Bellcore, NTT America, Microsoft and other companies converged on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this week to discuss issues surrounding the emerging field of Internet telephony. Those included interoperability, pricing and regulatory efforts. Internet telephony software vendor Vocaltec of Israel was teleconferenced in for the afternoon sessions.

The Research Programme on Communications Policy (RPCP) at MIT is attempting to form a consortium of telecommunications companies, Internet service providers, hardware and software vendors and others to work on interoperability and developing business models. Lee McKnight, associate director of RPCP, hopes to have the consortium pulled together by June. Members would pay annual fees of US$250,000 or US$50,000 for the two-year project.

Internet telephony needs network management, directory services and a method for guaranteeing bandwidth before it becomes a viable, widespread application, RPCP researchers says.

It's the "primordial Internet phone, ... a niche pioneer model" as a result of these failings, says Russ Neuman, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. But it will evolve, as did Pong, the TV-based 1970s video game that made many in the industry sceptical of the future of video games.

That evolution, which will be first seen in corporations, will result in firms making long distance calls at local call prices over leased lines on PBX systems, he says. Eventually, the commercial gateways will come to market that will enable users to make similar "cheap Internet" calls from home, through central switching offices, cellular stations and Internet access provider services.

Meanwhile, most of the telecommunications companies are more concerned with the question of how they can help make up for the potential loss in revenues by charging more for bandwidth-greedy applications that are increasingly straining all the networks that comprise the Internet.

The Internet Protocol (IP) offers only one class of service and does not distinguish between the different types of applications and their bandwidth and other resource needs. RSVP will allow providers to distinguish between data and reserve bandwidth for audio and video data, as well as charge more for that higher level of service.

Neuman says Cisco Systems and Bay Networks are behind on their schedule to deliver to market RSVP-capable routers. Beta code is out now, he says.

In private interviews, attendees confirm that their companies' main concerns were maintaining profitability. However, others questioned how dire the threat is.

"We're going to severely restrict the growth of the market with RSVP if we end up with similar pricing as the phone," says Bob Fletcher, marketing director for Netphone, which makes cards that enable a corporation's server to function as a PBX and will eventually allow for long distance calling on cheaper leased lines.

The consortium should "influence pricing standards so that Internet telephony uses the same standard as the Internet -- a monthly, fixed price," he says. "If you have call-based pricing, then there's no advantage" over regular phone calls.

"Telephone network technology is not that different from schlepping packets around" as on computer networks, says John Denker, department head at AT&T Research Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey. "There's no a priori reason one should be more expensive than the other."

The motivation behind the consortium is "the distortion in tariffs," he says. AT&T is not among a group of long distance providers and Interexchange carriers that has filed a petition seeking to have the Federal Communications Commission ban Internet telephony software and regulate the technology.

MCI also is forgoing a fight over Internet telephony in favor of possibly providing it as a service in the future, says Isaac Elliott, a senior engineer with MCI's Intelligent Services Platform. "The major business driver is not cost," he says. "The major business driver is offering new integrated services."

John Wroclawski, professor and researcher at MIT's Laboratory of Computer Science, agrees.

"The POTS (plain old telephone) network is substantially cheaper. The issue is the potential to grow into new services gracefully," he says.

"We need to convince the telcos that this Internet stuff is not the black death and convince the newcos," companies getting into the Internet telephony arena, that they need a new business model, Wroclawski says. "This stuff is not free."

A Microsoft employee has another concern.

"I'm more frightened by the public policy" issues because they "will cause agony and grief for a number of years," says Bob Frankston.

More information on RPCP and the consortium effort can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.rpcp.mit.edu/index.html.

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