IP telephony tops IETF agenda

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- IP telephony will be ringing off the hook in Washington this week.

More than 2,000 of the world's premier Internet engineers and developers will converge here to debate and advance their work on protocols that will help large organizations better carry voice and data over the Internet.

The 46th meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is notable for its focus on IP telephony. Participants will debate such issues as how to establish communications between two Internet telephones, how to coordinate telephone numbers with Internet addresses, and how to ensure a level of service that can support two-way, interactive voice over the Internet.

Six of the IETF's eight areas of protocol development are related to IP telephony standards, says Brian Carpenter, chair of the IETF's Internet Architecture Board and program director for Internet standards and technology at IBM. At least 20% of the people coming to the Washington meeting are from traditional telephony vendors -- a significant shift over past meetings.

"This is a completely new constituency for the IETF," Carpenter says.In fact, a telephony-related issue is likely to cause the most fireworks at the meeting. At a plenary session Wednesday night, attendees will debate a proposal for the IETF to develop protocols that would make it easier for law-enforcement agencies to intercept communications over the 'Net.

A wiretapping capability is built into central-office telephone switches, and various countries, including the U.S., require carriers to intercept or report on communications at the request of government agencies. At issue is whether these requirements will apply to voice communications over the Internet.

A formal vote on whether the IETF should build a wiretap capability into protocols is not expected at the plenary session. Instead, IETF leaders will try to gauge if there is a strong consensus among attendees. IETF leaders will take into account the views of attendees as well as feedback from an ongoing e-mail list in making their decision, which will be announced after the meeting adjourns.

"The people that are commenting on the mailing list seem to be saying what we felt -- that it's not a great idea for the IETF to get involved in this," says IETF chair Fred Baker, a Cisco fellow. "My guess is that we probably are not going to do anything.

"Throughout the week-long meeting, much of the activity will surround protocols that improve the quality of service (QoS) available for communications over the Internet. Two of the better-known IETF working groups in this area are Differentiated Services, which is developing protocols that can support a variety of service levels, and Integrated Services, which is developing protocols to support audio, video, real-time and traditional packet data traffic within a single network infrastructure.

Both groups are in the Transport Area, the most active of the IETF's eight areas. The Transport Area will host 27 sessions throughout the week -- many related to QoS and IP telephony.The IETF is divided into eight areas: Applications; General Interest; Internet; Operations and Management; Routing; Security; Transport; and User Services.

Within these eight areas, the IETF has 127 working groups developing protocols for product interoperability. Several "Birds of a Feather" sessions relatted to QoS and IP telephony are also scheduled.

Such sessions help determine whether there is enough interest in a topic to form an IETF working group. "We're at the point now where the basic technology is in place for QoS, and we have to figure out how to make it all fit together," Carpenter says. "The ISPs and telcos really want to be able to manage end-to-end services in a way that at the moment can't be done on the Internet. This should be of interest to enterprise network managers as well because the same issues arise."

Other hot topics at the meeting:

  • How best to transition from the current IPv4 to enhanced IPv6, which offers a virtually unlimited supply of Internet addresses.
  • How to protect end-user privacy with IPv6, which uses 128-bit addresses instead of the 32-bit addresses used in IPv4. The IETF came under fire recently because IPv6 addresses can include the serial numbers of users' network interface cards. However, the IETF says it is also possible to dynamically assign IPv6 addresses to ensure privacy.
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