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IP Communications

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Report On IP Communications
Internet Protocol Is Shrinking The Planet And Revolutionizing The Way We Live And Work. Mark Blanchard Looks At The New Frontiers In Voice, Video And Data Communication

October 13, 2004

By Mark Blanchard

When Leonard Yakobovits is on the road, he takes more than his work with him -- he takes his office too. With e-mail, a webcam and his latest technology tool, an Internet telephone service, the Concord, Ont.-based entrepreneur can do business whenever he wants to and wherever he is.

"It's great," says the president of Dezco Holding & Trading, a distributor of health, beauty and other products to dollar stores across the country. "You can communicate locally from anyplace in the world. When I go to a trade show, I take a little box with me, plug it in at the hotel and I am in business with a 416 area code. I can still use my own number and long-distance plan from wherever I am."

That little box is a broadband voice gateway from Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc. Its TalkBroadband service, like those offered by other voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone companies, connects to a standard wired or cordless phone and a high-speed Internet cable or DSL modem.

Now, Mr. Yakobovits doesn't have just one number. He has three -- two 416 area code numbers and a 1-800 toll-free number so customers can reach him conveniently.

"It's incredible," he said. "I am more accessible [and it] gives me the comfort of control, controlling more than I could have two years ago. That gives me piece of mind."

Not only can a Voip phone number travel, it can make communicating cheaper, more productive and more flexible.
Some services even let users activate features such as call forwarding through a website, listen to voice-mail on-line or have voice-mail messages delivered as e-mail attachments.

It's just part of a revolution in the way we communicate by voice, video and data, 30 years after the development of Internet protocol.

"Everything's digital now," says Bill Rainey, president of Vonage Canada, the newly formed Canadian arm of the U.S. firm that bills itself as the fastest growing telephony company in North America. "Voice, data, messaging and video are digital applications people use on a personal level and business level.

"The scope of voice over IP or digital broadband is the planet because the Internet is pervasive," he added. "It doesn't really care where you are. That is one of the big advantages of having IP technology -- you can be anywhere and still be you."

Mr. Yakobovits knows all too well the benefiting of leveraging technology to be more productive. Whether at his home or his office on the road, he deals with suppliers around the globe and often asks them to demonstrate products he may be interested in over a webcam because a one-dimensional photograph cannot show, for example, how thick a glass is.

"That will determine the price and how much returns I will have for breakage," he explained. E-mail, too, has become an indispensable tool for him. Digital photographs and electronic documents sent around the world often garner a response within seconds.

"I cannot live without e-mail," Mr. Yakobovits said. Nor, it seems, without his Internet telephone and the ones and zeros that make up the binary language of computing.

"My life has been transformed tremendously because of [IP communications]," he said. "I can go out for a weekend, even if I have a major deal coming, and still be in touch and in control."

Doctors in southwestern Ontario probably feel the same way about VideoCare, an innovative videoconferencing network that links the region's hospitals together.

"Things that you dreamed of 10 years ago are just common now," said Diane Beattie, chairwoman of the VideoCare regional steering committee and integrated vice-president of St. Joseph's Health Care in London and the London Health Sciences Centre.

"It's made the health-care system more accessible for people in rural communities," Ms. Beattie said.

With 57 locations in its network, VideoCare brings big city medical services to small-town Ontario. It started just two years ago, but is already having a profound impact on patients' lives, as well as making the heath-care system more efficient.

"We're saving a person, who's usually not all that well, the travel time and the aggravation," Ms. Beattie said. "The process is a little bit different, but it's the same diagnosis."

Some physicians even use the videoconferencing system to do their rounds, consulting with their colleagues and other specialists.

But perhaps VideoCare's most impressive ability is its power to transmit the sounds of life. "They actually have a stethoscope, so they can hear a patient's heart beat from a distance," Ms. Beattie added. "It really is quite cool."

The technology may be cool, but it's also compassionate. In one heart-wrenching example, staff at the London Health Sciences Centre used it to allow an elderly patient in palliative care could see her son and grandchildren one last time.

They lived in Yellowknife, but a videoconference organized on short notice brought the family members together for an emotional goodbye. The woman died hours afterward.

"An incredible story," Ms. Beattie noted. "We haven't been able to do that with the technology even five years ago."
While videophones aren't as sophisticated as the VideoCare equipment, they are becoming a more popular way to connect people together.

The Windsor Family Forum uses them in long-distance coaching and counselling sessions. When offering support to people who may be isolated, communicating face to face is important.

"It's a key part of working with somebody in a coaching or a therapeutic relationship," explained Bob McGuire, the group's co-executive director. "There's more of a sense of trust and connectedness."

Some videophones can be connect to regular telephone lines, while others require a high-speed broadband connection such as those offered by cable or DSL Internet services. Some require a computer, others do not.

The Windsor Family Forum hopes to keep its new videophone system as simple as possible and build a network with groups across Canada and the United States.

Speaking of video, chances are you can't tune into your favourite TV station over your phone line just yet. But some Canadians do, thanks to the next wave of television services.

SaskTel has Max, Manitoba Telecom Services has MTSTV and Bell Canada has ExpressVu for condos. All are digital television services delivered by the telephone companies through VDSL or "very high speed digital subscriber line," a far more powerful version of today's standard DSL broadband Internet connection.

So far, about 40,000 customers have signed on to so-called "telco TV" services in Canada, but some the world's biggest companies are betting consumers will one day embrace the next generation of it -- Internet protocol TV or IPTV -- as an alternative to traditional cable and satellite TV.

"We're not talking about delivering channels to your PC," said Ed Graczyk, Microsoft TV's director of marketing and communications.

"We're talking about delivering very high quality TV to your television with all the bells and the whistles . . . video on demand, digital video recording, an interactive program guide and interactive TV shows," he added. "It just happens to be delivered on a different type of network."

Replacing the traditional broadcast network by a broadband network will be a major development in television, if and when IPTV becomes mainstream.

Right now, Microsoft Corp. and Bell Canada are testing the technology. Until then, couch potatoes will just have to dream of what the future holds.

"In an IPTV world, you can do things that are impossible or too difficult on these other technologies," Mr. Graczyk said. "It includes just a better overall TV experience and starts with something as basic as instant channel changing."

Yes, he boasts, you won't have to endure a one or two second delay after you hit that cable or satellite TV remote control. "It's about 150 milliseconds -- faster than the blink of an eye."

Sharing files probably won't be that quick with a new peer-to-peer program expected to be launched in beta this fall, but LionShare will make file-sharing easier, more secure and more "responsible" for academics.

Developed by a team of computer scientists at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Penn State University, the project will link various universities' databases with each other.

It may not be as entertaining as Kazaa, Napster or Gnutella, mind you. But it will be a huge timesaver for students and professors who need to find research data often not available on their home campuses.

"Music is still the main driver for kids [when it comes to file sharing]," said Marek Hatala, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser's School of Interactive Arts and Technology. "Hopefully, educational resources will be too."

When users are authenticated on their home university network, they will be accepted by other schools around world taking part in LionShare. Then, they can tap into several databases with one search instead of several.

Users will also be able to catalog and organize their personal files, be they documents, data collections or digital video archives, so they can share and retrieve them with greater ease than before.

The authentication is key because it means users can trust the information available at the click of a mouse. The software's developers want to standardize the technology used in authenticated file sharing.

Even when the software is available, LionShare won't change the way people exchange information -- at least right away.
"We will still see a lot of files sent via e-mail attachments," Mr. Hatala said.

"But file sharing is a very natural way of sharing information, especially for people who are used to it -- even if they learned it through Kazaa or Napster."

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