Keystone Answering Service

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Changes in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) are Impacting Faxing

We started offering message faxing to our clients in 1988. The key to the success of faxing was its simplicity and ease of use.  When asked why, users often answered that “it just works.”  Facsimile services worked over standard POTS Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) lines.  The ability to send a document and confirm receipt, in addition to faxed signatures being legally binding remain key features.  Some in the Information Technology (IT) world consider faxing to be well past its prime.  The problem with that is businesses love faxing.  It has proven to be a reliable, safe, and an easy way to send messages and documents.  Can you think of a business or entity that does not have a fax number?  If you do, it is likely a business owned and operated by a millennial.

Traditional fax machines use modems to transmit and decode signals over the copper POTS telephone lines of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), operated by the nation’s telephone companies.  In accordance with the Facsimile G3 standard originally set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in the early 1980’s.  Faxing remains a durable, low cost method of communication for all businesses. 

When email gained widespread use in business in the 1990’s, some thought email would render faxing obsolete. However, email has problems of its own.  Email does not offer confirmation of receipt, and the problems of too many emails filling inboxes, spam, malicious attachments, phishing, and ransomware attacks from email attachments remain problematic to this day.  In fact, some people think that email is in danger of becoming unusable unless these problems can be overcome. 

What we are encountering here at Keystone is that as our clients are increasingly deploying new SIP service we are experiencing problems successfully faxing messages over to them. 

Technological and societal changes have also played a role that is impacting faxing.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first change in telecommunications law in 62 years.  It greatly increased competition and opened the internet for business communication.  Then we had the build out of the internet.  It began with AOL and dial-up modems for PC users to get online.  This strained the almost one century old copper telephone networks.  In response, carriers offered DSL circuits, T-1 facilities, cable coax service, and then cellular and fiber to achieve higher speeds.  To give you an idea of the rate of change in services, in 1979 there were 850,000 homes that had cable.  By 1989, that number had increased to over 53 million!

In the late 1990’s, VoIP, (voice over internet protocol) began to gain ground as an alternative to the PSTN.  Did you try Vonage?  Recall that during this time, pagers came and went by the wayside.  Cell phones, with their ability to send and receive text messages effectively obliterated pagers.  Thanks to millennial’s, texting overtook voice traffic in volume in 2010. Millennial’s have also been credited with winding down another communications service: voice mail.

With the widespread commercialization of cell phones, along came vastly more powerful versions: smart phones by Apple and Google.  As noted above, while this was taking place, another powerful and cost-effective standard evolved, the internet-based SIP, which came into use once the H.323 protocol was accepted by ITU and IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) starting around 2002. That is when we started hearing about the benefits of SIP.

Market forces and technology are impacting faxing because the major telephone carriers, referred to as ILECs (incumbent local exchange carriers) have been granted permission to let their copper infrastructure age out.  Faxing was built on analog signaling that ran over those copper lines. 

The old copper network of the past century is insufficient to carry the massive data traversing through today’s fiber and cellular networks.  Many business enterprises and residences have had to deal with issues relating to the last mile.  What broadband facilities are currently serving your business?  If it is still served by copper, don’t be surprised if the next time the telephone repairman comes in he tells you they are no longer adding lines or servicing the network.  Your service will be changed over to the new facilities. 

Since Y2K, carriers have opted to replace their networks with fiber and in doing so they embraced SIP technology to move call traffic, including faxing.  The best way to explain it is we are now in an era where voice communications and faxing is accomplished via 0’s and 1’s.  It is data being encoded, broken into packets, transmitted via various routes using different compression algorithms, then reassembled and decoded on the far end. The problem – especially with faxing – is when there is packet loss due to static or other errors in signaling.  If you have ever received one of those annoying telemarketing calls from overseas, that crackle and jitter you hear is an excellent example of a call using VOIP and SIP.  This interference to the packets is very harmful to faxing, which requires a clean session to send a SIP fax.

At Keystone, one of the downsides to this is that we are seeing faxing issues which our vendor engineers attribute to SIP to SIP incompatibility or due to packet loss in transmission.

We have been successfully using SIP for our Startel SoftFax service to our clients for over two years. During the first two years it worked like a charm.  We encountered very low failure rates.  However, in the past two months, as customers have upgraded their telephone networks, we have seen firsthand that when our clients change over from copper circuits to new services such as SIP that fax failure rates have increased.  In many cases, we get blamed for faxes that do not arrive on time, but there is nothing we can do on our end to alleviate that except to re-transmit the session or manually print the messages out and try them over a standard fax machine.  The latter method is very labor-intensive and not a cost-effective solution.

In one case, a long-term client who was on copper converted to Comcast SIP.  Faxing to them was never a problem over a twelve-year period.  After they converted, faxing became problematic immediately.  To address this, we have reached out to our prime vendor and our SIP provider.  They have put our SIP services used for faxing onto different circuit paths that have fewer internet hops to the area code destination.  The fax services are also configured to meet the T.38 standard.  Since we made these changes, over the past several weeks we have noticed a significant improvement in faxing.  We hope you have as well. 

In another case, we found out that the customer had a very old fax machine.  When we had them turn off ECM (error correction mode) our faxes started to go through successfully.

We wanted you to know that there are several other options for you to receive your messages.  First, if you are a commercial customer, we can easily email them over to you or you can access them via our Intellisite.  For our healthcare providers, due to HIPAA regulations, we recommend you try using our secure Intellisite portal or at least have it activated as a back-up.  We can set you up in minutes with access. Our Intellisite is easy to use and you can elect to either print your messages or save them into a folder.  You can also find any message in our system for up to six weeks.  It is also less expensive.  Please let us know if you would like to try any of these other options.