Interest in VOIP grows at CeBIT

Numerous new VOIP products were shown at the Cebit trade show.

Telephony has not been a big theme traditionally at the Cebit trade show -- until now. Interest is surging as voice evolves into one of many software applications that businesses and consumers can now run on their office or home IP (Internet protocol) networks.

Voice over IP, or VOIP, is a not-so-new but increasingly popular technology that allows voice calls to be carried over a data connection.

Developed in the early 1990s, VOIP has been slow to spread to the masses, largely because big phone companies have been reluctant to cannibalize their cash-cow circuit-switched telephony businesses with an essentially free voice service. But many of the early VOIP companies have also struggled to generate interest in the new technology among normal telephone customers with little, if any, understanding of computers.

That was then. The VOIP market is changing and Cebit is the place to see it happening.

Siemens is showing three different VOIP systems for consumers and small businesses. One features an ATA (analog telephone adapter) device that users slip into the USB (Universal Serial Bus) slot of their notebook computer or PC and connect by cable to a cordless DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) phone. The product, called Gigaset M34 USB, uses Sipps net telephony software from Nero.

The second product integrates the ATA module directly into a WLAN (wireless LAN) phone. The Gigaset S35 wireless phone is based on the IEEE 802.11g standard.

The third product, the SX541, is an inconspicuous white box containing a WLAN router that allows users to connect traditional cordless phones. The ATA module is integrated directly into the system, similar to the WLAN phone. But with the SX541, users can also make and accept both VOIP calls and circuit-switched ISDN calls. "This is a nice feature because it helps you easily contact people using one or the other technology, which will be the case for some time," said Armin Mayr, Siemens mobile product manager for southern Europe. "All the voice technology is tucked away in the router so users just have to navigate between the two services on the handset."

French wireless equipment manufacturer Inventel SA is showing a similar home gateway product that provides VOIP over cordless telephones.

Skype International, which offers a peer-to-peer VOIP service, is currently working together with an unidentified handset manufacturer to develop a cordless phone that connects to a router, said Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Niklas Zennstrom in an interview. He declined to say when the product would be available.

Last year, Skype collaborated with Danish handset supplier RTX Telecom A/S to launch a cordless phone with preinstalled Skype software that connects to PCs and notebooks, according to Zennstrom.

At the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes last month, Skype announced a partnership with Motorola Inc. to develop "Skype-enabled" wireless devices.

Several network operators are also using Cebit to announce their VOIP plans. T-Online International, the online arm of German telco Deutsche Telekom AG, unveiled a new service targeted at its DSL customers. The carrier's fixed-line unit, T-Com, also announced in Hanover additional testing of advanced VOIP services using technology from Lucent Technologies Inc.

Deutsche Telekom is following in the footsteps of several other big phone companies, notably AT&Tand BT Group, that have decided to enter the VOIP fray and eat their own lunch before someone eats it for them.

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