You can use Internet protocols to make phone calls inside your own network. And you don't have to pay for the minutes. But you can't do the same thing with a business partner. Instead, you have to pay a carrier like BT or AT&T to carry the phone call over the public switched telephone network (PSTN).


(PSTN is an analog network born in 1878 when Bell opened a switching office in New Haven, CT. It's done us proud, but it's time to move to a digital network.)


It's even worse for video conferencing. If you want to have a video conference internally, you can use your IP network to do it. But if you want to do a video conference with a business partner, you have to use a complex business gateway link and pay a lot of money for it.
Cisco thinks it's time to change that. We spoke with Cisco executives Tony Bates, Barry O'Sullivan, and Joe Burton about Cisco's intercompany media engine (IME), a new technology to replace PSTN with its Internet equivalent. Cisco's goals are audacious:
  • Give companies with digital voice networks a secure way to use the Internet to connect directly with customers and partners. It'll just be making a phone call as before, but with better audio, an immediate video link if one is available, and more information about who's calling and why.
  • Introduce a new standard for making phone and video calls that it hopes others will get on board with. Cisco submitted five engineering specs to the Internet Engineering Task Force last fall.
  • Make money by driving more Internet and IP network traffic, thereby selling more of its CRS-3 routers. This router is designed to carry video traffic over the Internet, including video conferencing. Secure B2B voice and video will drive huge Internet traffic. Cisco, Avaya, and the carriers can make money that way.
So is IME real? Well, it's been demoed and we saw it. Cisco SVP Tony Bates in San Jose, California, USA, made a video conferencing call to a Cisco and their Dimension Data customer Queensland Rail in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Tony had his video desk phone. Gerard Lynden in Australia had a Tandberg video conference room. Tony and Gerald Lynden had a video conference just by placing a phone call, and the call itself cost nothing because it used the public Internet.
I'll be frank. I'm pushing it. I think it's time to give phones a chance to participate in global Internet connections. It's fundamentally a good idea, and Cisco deserves credit for developing it and putting the core technology into a standards process. But it needs industry support.
So my ask is that Cisco, Avaya, IBM, AT&T, BT, Tata, NTT, China Telecom, Microsoft, the conferencing providers, and  the handset makers step up together to create a global network to make secure, Internet-based phone calls and video conferences by just dialing the phone.
Here's what it means for information & knowledge management professionals and other IT professionals focused on collaboration and unified communications.
  1. What it means (WIM) #1. IME would give your unified communications investments a way to phone partners in London. Or Singapore or Chicago or Tokyo or Mumbai. With no toll charges. That alone should spur you to care about it.
  2. WIM #2. B2B video conferences would get a whole lot easier. With a secure B2B link, you would be able to initiate and conduct a video conference with a customer by placing a phone call.
  3. WIM #3. You should push Cisco and Avaya and AT&T and others to get together and make a real standard. You don't want a Cisco-only solution (neither does Cisco). But in order for this to work with all your customers and partners, the industry needs to coalesce on the standards process.
  4. WIM #4. Don't start planning your IME launch party yet. We believe that it will take a few quarters for Cisco's product to hit its stride, a few years to build industry support for the standard, and a few decades to reach global ubiquity. But you should learn about the technology and think about which partners or customers you might start experimenting with.
  5. WIM #5. Phone numbers gain new credibility as a global routing system. We've all become used to email addresses and URLs. But phone numbers are just so convenient. IME will breath new life into them. Mobile phones will also be IME linkable though phone numbers.
Jump on in if you have thoughts to share.