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Q&A: Gopi Gopinath, President, Equant

Fence-sitting about whether to deploy a Voice over IP calling system with data networks may become the new pastime for some enterprises in 2004, but try telling that to Equant .

The global data and networking giant, which is based in Paris and Washington, D.C., now counts Zurich Financial Services as one of its big enterprise customers whose data networks are being primed for VoIP .

Equant's 10-year term contract with Zurich Insurance Company calls on the company to manage Zurich Financial Services Group's telecom and network services in seven European countries. In addition to providing and managing a Wide Area Network , the 10-year contract includes Local Area Network management, fixed and mobile voice, Internet access, security services and remote access services. In the process, Zurich will begin migrating its legacy network into a seamless IP VPN system.

For a company that began rolling out VoIP services to its customers close to four years ago, the recent hype about VoIP from providers such as AT&T and cable company Time Warner seems quite quaint.

After all, the company helped pioneer the Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) format that helps voice/data networks scale up quickly while prioritizing certain voice packets in the network. MPLS is seen as a networking protocol that could do for VoIP what HTTP did to help standardize the Web.

internetnews.com recently chatted about industry trends regarding VoIP deployment with Gopi Gopinath, president of products for Equant. In his position, he oversees product marketing, service creation and pricing for the company's five product lines: Data and IP, Security, Voice and Mobile, Integration Services and Hosting and Messaging.

Q: With the increased awareness of VoIP by businesses, at least those that are ready to switch their PBX systems for integrated voice and data, has your target market changed?

Our target market is the same: the Global 5000. Within that group, about 1,000 are our customers. We're seeing signs that businesses [larger ones especially] have recognized the need to put voice on the data network. Now, some are moving into the next phase of what they can do once they have the integration. And among those who have been more reticent about VoIP trials, there is the increasing realization that this is the right thing to do.

We've found greater acceptance in Europe than we've seen in North America. Far more of our customers have moved to IP VPN than we've seen here. And clearly, a fully managed service is more attractive to customers than in the U.S. We've also found there is a tendency by some to think that the service is being offered over the public Internet, which it is not.

Q: For customers that have not deployed VoIP, but have invested in IP VPNs, especially multiple IP VPNs, are they ready for the switch?

Yes. Right now, only about 100 customers are deploying VoIP in their VPNs. But we have found that one reason people purchased the VPN service was to be able to get voice [services too], or they decide [VoIP] is ready for prime time and are changing their PBXs. But certainly, clients are future-proofing themselves by moving into IP VPNs, which is one of our staple products, it's a best selling product actually.

One of the driving factors helping VoIP, I think, is that it is capable of carrying voice, video and data. We have a class of service dedicated to voice. It's pretty transparent to the end users. We try to make it seamless as possible for them when they go on the Internet to make a call. But for many, it's the decision of whether to upgrade from Frame Relay to IP VPN.

Q: But what if my network bandwidth is coming to my business via the fixed-bandwidth of frame relay , or even ATM ? Will a VoIP deployment be more sticky?

We have some customers who use voice over frame relay, purely as a transport mechanism. But for some existing frame customers, our recommendation is to migrate to IP VPN [for VoIP].

Q: Why is that?

With IP becoming mature, companies are finding that now is the time to move to the new and improved technology. So if they [eventually] want voice, then they make the decision to move to IP-VPN. On the other hand, if networking requirements haven't changed, and if they are looking for other characteristics, then they would probably stay with frame relay.

I think IP-VPN is ideally suited for other capabilities you can hang off of it. We offer a managed video conference service, for example. When you use video conferencing on IP VPN, the bandwidth you have is set aside and made available for remaining data applications. We set aside what's called a fifth class of service. So when [bandwidth] is not being used, we preserve and set aside.

Q: When VoIP calls are guaranteed by the byte, rather than by the call, isn't there a concern over the extent of service level agreements customers get with VoIP?

We offer service level agreements, and all kinds of jitter buffers to help ensure the quality of the voice call, and to ensure the quality on network meets certain minimums.

We have several SLAs that are required to ensure that voice quality is as good as you'll get on a traditional network. Calls are priced on a per network basis, for, say, a connection from Rio to New York. We are primarily an international carrier, our network spans 220 countries.

But every call on the network gets the quality, because our customers are the world's top global companies, who are the finickiest of them all. They are satisfied with the carrier grades that we offer to them.

The other factor is that our IP VPN is offered on a private shared network. If we used the public Internet instead of our own network, we would not be able to offer this quality. We control our own network, and we control each piece of hardware, so it's very end-to-end, which means we give service level agreements from a customer premise and are able to measure the quality of service from a customer's premise.

Q: How pivotial is the MPLS protocol for the expected expansion of VoIP for businesses?

You can deploy MPLS differently by what you decide to do. For instance you can deploy an MPLS-based network only after an edge router. Some network service providers deploy it only for traffic shaping for the network.

We also expect router companies that we work with such as Cisco to expand their MPLS capabilities. We designed our [VoIP] service using MPLS; it's used as a tool to help us provide an end to end service.