Voice-over-IP net goes live

Honolulu - Companies for several years have promoted the idea of placing telephone calls over the Internet, but they have found few takers because of poor connections and even worse audio quality.

Now, Nortel Networks has landed a precedent-setting contract to replace traditional telephone service for U.S. forces at England's Mildenhall Air Force Base with a voice-over-IP system engineered to satisfy unique military requirements, including priority calling.

The Mildenhall project is not a trial but the first operational use of such technology anywhere in Defense Department, said Ken Stanfill, telephone product group manager for at the Air Force's Sacramento Air Logistics Center, speaking here at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's annual Asia-Pacific conference.

The Air Force opted for Internet telephones at Mildenhall because the United States has had to rent telephone wires and connections from BT, the British telephone company. Furthermore, the Air Force should see significant savings from switching to an Internet Protocol telephone solution because the United States owns its own data network on the base, said Mara Foulis, senior federal marketing manager for Nortel.

Gary Sanderson, marketing manager of Nortel, said the company will begin the Internet telephone installation at Mildenhall in the first quarter of 2000, with 170 phones connected to the base IP network. The goal is to switch all 6,000 phones used by U.S. personnel at the base off the BT copper plant and onto the data network.

Nortel will install IP cards in its MSL-100 switch. The system will be configured to provide commanders who need to grab a circuit quickly with DOD-unique functions such as call override and call pre-emption. In such cases, Foulis said, a call would automatically be transferred from the IP network - which at this stage cannot handle such functions - to the military switched network.

Robert Fortna, Nortel's vice president for federal solutions, said voice over IP is a sign of the company's switch from being a manufacturer of telephone switches to an organization targeted at providing products for the burgeoning Internet market. Nortel, which recently acquired Bay Networks, has transformed itself from an old-line manufacturer into "a software company" devoting $1.6 billion a year into research and development on Internet solutions, he said.

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