While we generally talk about the benefits of faxing, tech enthusiasts might also appreciate that fax has a long history with the various standards bodies that mandate how communication systems work. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), for example, has published hundreds of standards for building and implementing fax networks. Despite their name, adoption of these “standards” is not mandatory; some fade without much practical implementation, while others evolve and grow into well established and accepted industry practices.
Fax – the Early Years
Original analog fax specifications set out by the ITU (T.2 and T.3) were first ratified in 1976, but twenty years later had been withdrawn as obsolete. In their place came the T.4, T.6, and T.30 specifications, written in the late 70s and early 80s, which specified digital fax transfer capabilities. T.4 governed what became known as Group 3 fax machines (capable of meeting common transmission and quality parameters), while T.6 mandated fax transmissions over 64 k/bits ISDN circuits (Group 4 machines). T.30 set forth widely accepted procedures for fax transmissions over public switched telephone networks (PSTN). T.6 was last modified in 1988, but T.4 and T.30 have continued to evolve over the years: T.4 was last revised in 2003 and T.30 in 2007.
To make matters more confusing, each of these specifications made recommendations concerning acceptable data transmission rates. These recommendations were fleshed out in subsequent sub-standards. V.27, for instance, released in 1988, set data rates for fax modems at 2400-4800 bit/s. V.29, also published in 1988, doubled these rates to 9600 bit/s. The regressively named V.17, released in 1991, set the most commonly used standard at 14,400 bit/s. Agreement among these data transmissions protocols clouded the fax landscaped even further, as each used a different digital modulation method for transmitting data. This made building fax machines with modems that would succeed in both the business and consumer space a game of chance for equipment manufacturers. Succeeding recommendations have pushed data rates even higher, and have introduced additional modulation methods.
Internet Faxing Comes of Age
With the growth of the internet and wireless communications, it became clear that newer protocols were needed to move fax away from a dependency on wired networks. T.37, approved in 1998, established a protocol for sending faxes by email. Known as “Internet Fax” or “Store and Forward Fax,” the standard is relatively simple — T.37-enabled fax machines convert documents to images, generally .TIF files, attach the image to an email (using MIME format), and send the email via SMTP. At the receiving end, another T.37-enabled machine accepts the email and prints the attached image as a fax.
Simple enough, but like many ITU standards, T.37 only provides a basic framework for this transaction, giving adopters a choice between several operational modes. A basic mode provides for common paper sizes and either a standard or fine image resolution, while a full mode provides additional support for delivery confirmations, error messages, and grayscale/color images.
The openness of the T.37 protocol, coupled with serious concerns about its lack of secure transmissions, doomed T.37 among hardware manufacturers, and it was never widely accepted. In its place came T.38 (also first released in 1998, last revised in 2010), that set out the requirements for sending faxes over IP Data networks. T.38 was designed to complement inexpensive Voice over IP (VoIP) networks, and it soon became known as Real-Time FoIP, or Fax over Internet Protocol. One important feature of T.38 was that it worked with older fax machines, acting as an IP gateway for machines that could only communicate with the PSTN. (This interoperability with the PSTN helped reduce the security concerns that plagued the T.37 standard.)
Despite its promise, problems with FoIP transmissions quickly became evident. The acceptable “jitter” inherent in VoIP transmissions (due to occasional dropped data packets that manifests as silence or poor call quality) is more than a simple nuisance to fax transmissions — dropped data packets mean incomplete faxes or dropped fax calls. Silence suppressors and Error Correction Methods (ECMs) used by the latest generation of fax machines compensate for this problem, but the results have been less than satisfactory. Suppression techniques can inadvertently block the fax signal by misjudging when the signal starts and stops. Machines employing ECM can request that a fax transmission be resent so that missing data makes it through, but this only raises the overall cost of the fax (and it does not ensure that the resent packets will be jitter-free).
Telephony carriers have been slow to fully adopt T.38 as an IP fax standard. Expensive investment in a T.38-capable system does not guarantee its utility, especially if other carriers are not making the same effort. Put simply, the standard is too open to interpretation to be adequately and universally implemented, and so carriers have avoided it altogether.
This leaves customers settling for spotty fax service from VoIP providers that don’t have a true FoIP solution. The protocol saga continues to this day. The older G.711 protocol (1988) for voice transmissions via Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) has been experimented with in an attempt to iron out the data loss that plagues T.38 transmissions. Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP (1996), has recently been used, with better results, to control FoIP transmissions and provide improved IP fax traffic conditions.
Cloud Faxing to the Rescue!
Fortunately, small-to-medium sized companies don’t have to invest large amounts of time and money into building in-house fax systems cobbled together from this traffic jam of specifications. Hosted (“cloud”) online faxing solutions such as eFax® provide a flexible, digital service for sending and receiving faxes by email using PCs, laptops, smartphones, or tablets. They replace expensive in-house systems with a predictable cost model and capacity that scales to the size of the organization.
Online Faxing Features
The leading hosted faxing service providers include features that make it a valuable addition to any office, small or large:
- Send/receive faxes as email attachments.
- Preview faxes before sending them.
- Available local, toll-free, and international numbers.
- An easy-to-use web interface.
- Custom digitized signatures.
- Secure, encrypted faxing available.
- Full address book for your contact information.
- Faxing from multiple email addresses.
- Quickly search stored faxes using keywords.
- Send, receive, or view faxes from your favorite Apple or Android device, tablet, or smartphone.
- Share large files up to 1GB in size (available with eFax®).
- Lifetime storage for both sent and received faxes (available with eFax®).
Online Faxing Benefits
Hosted faxing solutions provide immediate, tangible benefits to any organization, including:
- Better resource allocation. Hosted fax means someone else takes care of the technology upgrades (including knowing which specifications are in industry-wide use, and how to effectively implement them), network monitoring, and security administration. This allows valuable IT staff to focus on mission-critical work without getting bogged down keeping legacy systems working past obsolescence.
- Elimination of overhead. Does away with the recurring capital costs of in-house fax systems, including phone lines, data storage, equipment, and license fees, as well as soft costs for paper and toner.
- Workplace flexibility. Employees can send faxes via email or the web using their PC, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
- Improved productivity. Instantly share faxes between employees and clients.
- True “green” performance. Eliminate the need to file or search for paper faxes.
- True scalability. Port your existing fax numbers or, as your company grows, add local, toll-free, or international eFax numbers whenever you need them.
- Compliance with Federal regulations such as HIPAA, GLB, SOX, and HITECH. eFax provides an enhanced security option that provides an encrypted method for viewing faxes.
Don’t get lost in a sea of standards, protocols, and recommendations. Send your fax needs to the cloud via hosted faxing. To learn more about eFax®, visit http://www.efax.com/features today, or you can download the mobile fax app for the iPhone and iPad or the mobile fax app for Android now. For enterprise solutions or to learn more about customized application faxing, visit http://www.enterprise.efax.com/.