More than 160 years after the facsimile machine was invented, IP communications is breathing new life into a technology recently written off. A group hoping to guide the future of Voice-over-IP envisions Fax-over-IP (FoIP) leading the way toward a seamless transition into the future.
As humorist Mark Twain might have said, reports of the death of fax are greatly exaggerated. With more than 100 million fax machines working away worldwide, the technology is far from taking its last breath.
Although sales of stand-alone fax machines have fallen off the radar for many, sales of all-in-one printers that include faxing capability grew 340 percent in 2007. Despite the increased use of e-mail and PDF, faxing remains an integral part of business communication.
"Fax remains as indispensable as paper, with fax the closest application to written communications," said Gartner analyst Tosh Prabhakar.
Gartner expects a mix of FoIP and the skyrocketing sales of all-in-one printers to spur an 80 percent growth of fax servers in enterprises. "Faxing over VoIP networks provides users with lower network management and maintenance costs by implementing fax, voice and data over a single joint network," wrote Prabhakar.
However, the transition to IP faxing has been stuck in neutral as companies navigate a patchwork quilt of differing standards governing fax transmission. The result can be frustrating as there is a high failure rate for faxes sent over IP networks.
Although many companies employ the latest faxing technology, carriers often use older methods, resulting in transmission performance akin to a Ferrari forced to travel cobblestone roads.
FoIP server market leaders include the French-based Sagem Interstar with 47.5 percent of the market and the Chicago, Ill.-headquartered Open Text controlling about 25 percent, according to researcher Peter Davidson.
In an ironic admission of the problem, the SIP Forum, a group that advocates for all-IP communications, keeps an analog phone line dedicated to faxing. Marc Robins, the organization's managing director, told Enterprise VoIPplanet he wouldn't consider using Skype or another VoIP network to send a fax.
Most voice communications traveling across IP networks are governed by the G.711 standard. This standard attempts to carry faxes inside VoIP packets.Although you can lose a few voice packets and your brain can still decipher the caller's message, faxing is not as forgiving. Like a person who drank too much coffee, faxes develop the "jitters."
If a fax machine doesn't understand the message, it will ask the sender to re-transmit, taking more time. At least 20 percent of single-page FoIP transmissions fail, according to Robins. The failure rate is even higher for longer faxes.
In 1998, the T.38 protocol was created, allowing faxes to be converted between an IP-centric business and the PTSN network.
"The problem with T.38 is how it is deployed, with several 'hops' in a FoIP call," Robins said. A fax may be transmitted by a T.38 gateway, travel across a PTSN network and finally reach a machine. Each stage introduces additional delay. And even if a T.38 fax could connect directly to a T.38 network, all T.38 implementations are not the same.
Robins described the FoIP landscape as "sort of like the Wild West. We need to reign in the industry a bit."
More than a dozen FoIP companies, including Cisco, Siemens Enterprise, and Dialogic, attended a November SIP Forum meeting, where a Fax over IP Interoperability workshop was created. A "Statement of Problem," to be released soon is seen by the SIP Forum as "the first stake in the ground" toward bringing together all the differing implementations of T.38.
While standalone fax machines are gathering dust, a combination of new regulations and update technology may save fax as an industry. Robins jokes that Washington, DC may get much of the credit for the second coming of fax. From patient privacy regulations such as HIPAA to the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting rules, many documents still must be faxed.
Although sales of single-purpose fax machines have fallen to the point where many large market research firms long ago stopped tracking their sales, the fax server industry will grow by 12.5 percent to $1.6 billion in 2012, according to Davidson Consulting.
However, the key may be developing a unified faxing protocol that allows carriers to keep their older technology but opens the way for IP to rejuvenate faxing. Such a move, including consolidating the millions of stand-alone fax machines into armies of FoIP servers, could cut corporate faxing costs in half, according to Gartner.