Networking | Features/Function Enhancements

PBX networking has evolved dramatically during the past 25 years. The earliest PBX networking arrangements consisted of two switch nodes linked by a dedicated, private line facility (E&M tie trunk) to save on long distance toll charges. The primary benefit was cost savings. When customers began to use multiple long distance carriers in the late 1970s it became necessary for PBX systems to analyze each placed long distance call to determine which carrier service should handle the call.

The preferred carrier service was usually the lowest priced for the call. A new PBX feature was developed and known by several names, including least cost routing (LCR), ARS, and most economical route selection (MERS). Implementing the feature required the system administrator to enter the call destination route and routing pattern data into a database that would price each call based on tariff pricing data. The tariff data was obtained through a service bureau and needed to be updated regularly.

The benefit to the customer was to reduce long distance toll expenses. Expensive calling routes were restricted to callers only with permitted network classes of service levels; callers with the lowest service level rating could place calls only when the lowest cost route was available.

Also in the late 1970s, AT&T announced its Electronic Tandem Network (ETN) offering, and PBX networks acquired a greater degree of complexity and functionality. ETN was a private tandem network consisting of a meshed network of private line facilities linking tandem switch PBX nodes, main PBX nodes, and satellite systems. In-band signaling techniques supported a network dialing plan and automatic alternate routing between nodes within the network. In addition to cost-savings benefits using fixed tariff private line carrier facilities, customers enjoyed greater control over network operation and use. All of this was initially done with the use of narrowband analog trunking facilities.

The next step up the evolutionary PBX networking ladder was establishing an intelligent network signaling to support transparent feature/function operations between discrete locations served by independent PBX systems. AT&T’s Distributed Communications System (DCS) offering was introduced in 1982 for its Dimension PBX. The first intelligent signaling link required an expensive private data circuit; analog private lines were used to carry voice traffic. The DCS intelligent networking solution allowed customers to use simplified dialing plans (i.e., four- or five-digits) for calls across PBX systems; supported transport of caller name/number display information between telephone desktops working behind different switching nodes; and provided a basic level of transparency within the network for many of the most commonly used station features, such as call transfer, call forwarding, and multiparty conferencing. Shared applications were also supported across a network of PBX systems, such as centralized voice messaging.

The arrival of digital T1-carrier trunk services in the mid-1980s changed the rules for PBX networking because in-band signaling was replaced by out-of-band signaling, and new networking solutions became possible. The same digital trunk circuit used for voice traffic could also be used to support the intelligent signaling link between PBXs. Digital voice carrier services using T1-carrier circuits made out-of-band signaling a more economic and feasible solution for implementing an intelligent network of PBXs. Use of an out-of-band signaling channel allowed PBX systems to communicate with one another at a much higher level than before. The resulting intelligent network configuration could offer customers traditional network transmission costs savings and provide significant productivity gains and additional cost savings through the use of shared application features/functions.

Each PBX manufacturer’s intelligent networking solution was proprietary and caused problems for customers with a mix of PBX systems in their networks. An initiative was begun in the late 1980s in Europe by the leading PBX suppliers to create a standardized network signaling protocol to intelligently link dissimilar PBXs. The signaling standard is commonly known as Qsig, and was originally developed under the auspices of the ISDN Private Network Systems (IPNS) Forum. PBX systems that support Qsig can interwork intelligently with each other; support basic call set-up and tear-down across the network between dissimilar PBX system platforms; conform to a common dialing plan for limited digit dialing across PBXs; transmit and accept telephone display information, such as calling name and number, and call redirection data between desktops; and sup- port feature-transparent operations for a defined set of features, such as call forwarding, call transfer, conferencing, and network attendant service. Although most leading PBX suppliers support Qsig as part of their networking solutions, the degree of transparency between systems remains limited. Manufacturers must do continual testing of their systems to correct Qsig message and signaling problems.

PBX networking advancements in the late 1980s included support of ISDN PRI services. ISDN PRI service circuits became the preferred trunking solution for implementing an intelligent feature-transparent network because the D channel was a natural communications channel for handling signaling and control data across distributed PBXs. New PBX networking features based on ISDN PRI services included support of incoming ANI, and call-by-call service selection (CBCSS). CBCSS allows a PBX system administrator to define the communications service supported by individual ISDN PRI bearer communications channels. A single T1-carrier trunk circuit, supported by ISDN PRI service, could be used for a variety of services between the PBX system and the network exchange carrier’s central office switching system. For example, several bearer channels could be designated incoming DID trunks, others could be designated two-way CO trunks, and others could be designated clear channel data circuits. Using programming tools, the administrator could reconfigure the mix of trunk services on demand or by a schedule, or could even program the channels to reconfigure themselves based on real-time traffic conditions.

Network carrier services in the 1990s designed to support data communications were also supported by PBX systems. Nortel Networks redesigned its Magellan Passport Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) switching system as a Meridian 1 gateway module to support a mix of voice, data, and video communications over broadband trunk carrier circuits. Lucent Technologies, NEC, and Siemens also introduced ATM network interface options for their respective PBX systems. One of the most important PBX networking advancements in the late 1990s was the introduction of external IP telephony gateways, closely followed by integrated IP trunk gateway port circuit cards. Lucent Technologies was the first to market an integrated IP trunk option and was closely followed by other market leaders, including Nortel Networks and Alcatel.


Video Communications | Features/Function Enhancements

The older generation of PBX station users may remember their first introduction to the videophone at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Several generations of PBXs have come and gone since 1964, but PBX-based desktop video communications is still a work in progress for most customers. The first major attempts at desktop video communications behind a PBX system occurred during the early 1990s when ISDN BRI options became available. Using both BRI bearer communications channels per video call (128-Kbps transmission rate) provided a fair quality of service, but a killer application for the video option never materialized, and desktop video behind the PBX is rarely implemented today. Desktop video communications today is based primarily on LAN or supported by dedicated trunk circuit facilities.

Lucent Technologies attempted to revive interest in PBX-based video communications in the mid-1990s when it introduced two Definity PBX options designed to support voice calling features on video calls. The MultiMedia Communications Exchange (MMCX) was a server-based system designed to support H.323 mixed-media calling (voice, data, and video). The MMCX provided some basic calling features, including dial plan, conferencing, and call forwarding, to LAN-connected workstations used for video communications applications. The MMCX could also support traffic between PBX ports and LAN peripherals, and a Q signaling (Qsig) link would provide a higher level of PBX system features to the LAN workstations. Another PBX option was called MultiMedia Call Handler (MMCH), which was designed to apply a limited number of voice calling features to ISDN BRI video workstations conforming to H.320 standards. Neither the MMCX nor MMCH offerings gained market acceptance, although the MMCX product was later modified by Lucent and reintroduced as its first Internet telephony gateway product. The IP gateway was further redesigned as an internal IP trunk interface card for the Definity PBX. The concept of the MMCX, a call processing server for LAN workstations, could be considered an early version of today’s emerging IP-PBX systems. Although no IP telephones existed when the MMCX was announced, LAN-based voice communications using a video workstation equipped with a microphone and speaker were supported.


Data Communications | Features/Function Enhancements

Digital PBXs were supposed to be the enterprise data communications network backbone, but some things were not meant to be. The first PBX data communications options were introduced in the early 1980s. In 1980 Intecom was the first to offer a high-speed data module capable of transmission rates of up to 57.6 Kbps. This was at the time when most modems were operating below 9.6 Kbps, and 10-Mbps Ethernet was not yet introduced. After the Intecom announcement, most of the older PBX suppliers announced data module options for their systems with maximum transmission rates ranging from 9.6 to 64 Kbps (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Call center configuration.

Data communications options were available for integrated voice/data or stand-alone data ports. The integrated voice/data port option required a data module that attached to a digital telephone and provided a RS-232C or RS-449 interface for an adjunct data terminal. Asynchronous and synchronous interfaces were usually available from each PBX suppler. Stand-alone data modules were also available and may have required a port circuit card dedicated to data-only communications. The early data modules were priced at about $300 to $500 and required the more expensive digital telephones to work. Most PBX systems at the time were not designed to handle long call holding times and required extensive traffic engineering to support significant customer data requirements. When digital trunks were first available in the mid1980s, the tariffs were very high, and the PBX digital trunk interface cards were expensive compared with analog trunk interfaces. The cost of LAN equipment, at first significantly more expensive than PBX data option pricing, declined rapidly during the 1980s, making it a far more attractive data networking solution than a PBX. PBX data modules, once considered a high-speed option, were viewed as slow when compared with LAN transmission rates. Dreams of the PBX becoming the data networking solution died by the late 1980s when LAN technology matured and network routers first entered the market. Shipment levels of PBX data stations (integrated and stand-alone) never exceeded 3 percent of total annual shipments.

PBXs attempted to make a comeback in the early 1990s by offering a wideband data communications option using an ISDN primary rate interface (PRI) circuit card. By bonding multiple B channels together, a PBX could support transmission rates up to 1.5 Mbps to the desktop and across its digital trunk network. The cost to support the option, however, was seen as excessive because a single wideband port required a dedicated ISDN PRI port circuit card that could cost several thousand dollars. Fujitsu was the first to offer wideband data communications on its F9600 PBX, but customer demand was weak. Other PBX suppliers soon followed the Fujitsu announcement with their own ISDN PRI–based data communications option, but total sales of the option to date have failed to reach 1 percent saturation.

Another PBX system attempt to make a dent in the data communications market came in the mid-1990s when Intecom introduced an Ethernet hub and workstation interface option fully integrated into its port cabinet design. Broadband fiber optic loops between the distributed port cabinets handled intrasystem data traffic and could support Ethernet 10BaseT transmission standards. The broadband data communications option was priced higher than existing LAN interface and switching equipment and failed to find a market.

More than 20 years after the first attempts to position the PBX system as a data communications networking solution, sales of PBX data modules are negligible. The only appreciable data traffic transmitted across a PBX system today is analog-based data communications generated by modems. PBXs are used primarily as a back-up system when LANs are down for service or repair. Ironically, the often unreliable nature of enterprise LANs has made the PBX an invaluable spare data network solution, forcing many voice communications managers to install a significant number of analog ports in support of data modems for use in emergencies. PBX data solutions may not be high speed, but they are reliable.
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