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Fax: What it is and Why it isn’t Going Anywhere

The hearty facsimile is a much-maligned figure these days. It has been called out by many as the poster-boy for obsolete technology i the workplace. A relic with no place in the our innovative digital-era. Since at least the early 2000’s people have been predicting the death of the fax machine, but these predictions have had to face an inconvenient truth—it isn’t true. Despite all detractors, all those who predicted its downfall, fax remains a dominant force both in the United States and especially globally. It us estimated 20-billion fax-messages are sent a year globally, and at least 50% of all transnational communications today are done via fax. It might surprise you to learn the biggest area of growth for facsimile in the the past 5-years has been the United States. Where there are now over 17-million active fax machines.

Cool Fax VectorSo what is the reality then? The reality is that fax remains a vital communication tool that is relied upon by businesses of all sizes and in all industries across the world. Rather than being destroyed by the workplace’s digital transformation, it has thrived because of it. So, for the younger reader out there, consider this your introduction to the technology you thought you would never have to learn about— but that is not going anywhere anytime soon. So let’s quickly review the history of facsimile and where it has come since it’s origins over 160-years ago (yes, really!).

Fax– short for facsimile– is the telephonic transmission of a physical document into a single fixed graphical image that is then transmitted to another fax-capable device. The History of Fax goes back over 160-years. The first fax machine was invented by Alexander Bain in 1843, when he was issued British Patent 9745 for his “electric-printing telegraph” in that same year. Other designers would make various improvements to Bain’s design, and the first commercially-available faxing service opened between Paris and Lyon in 1865 (11-years before the invention of the telephone).

The next big step in development came in 1924 when inventor Richard Ranger invented wireless photo-faxing—or “Radio Facismile”—which would allow facsimile to be sent over broad distances utilizing radio waves and requiring a minimum of wired-infrastructure compared to previous devices. Radio-fax would be the primary method by which photographic imagery would be transmitted across national borders for the next half-century. Indeed, Radio facsimile was the vehicle through which the vast majority of our World War 2 photography was transmitted during the era. 

English inventor Alexander Bain, received the first patent for a faxing device. (1843)
WW2 Flag Raising at Iwo Jima
The iconic flag raising on Iwo Jima was printed in American newspapers within a day of being taken, because it was transmitted from Guam to New York City via wireless radiofacsimile-- nearly 8,000 miles.
Fax Fast Facts:

Fax Fast Facts Icon

  • In 1970 there were 30,000 fax machines in the united states, today there are more than 18 million in the U.S.A
  • In 1925, it took 6-minutes to send a single page via fax.
  • Nearly 100% of Businesses in Japan have a fax machine. Almost half of all homes in Japan have a personal fax machine.
  • The fax machine was invented before the telephone was.
  • According to the IDC, average yearly growth for Fax usage in the USA is 27%.
  • 75% of American SMBs currently using facsimile say their usage is increasing.
  • The most common method of Fax usage today is through an office MFP.

Fax at the Office

Diagram of Traditional Faxing
Traditional Fax One-to-One Communication

Xerox Magnafax Telecopier AdvertisementIn 1966, Xerox unveiled the Magnafax Telecopier—revolutionary for its “lightweight” (46-pound footprint) design. The Magnafax would in time it would become seen as the progenitor of the contemporary office fax machine. It was capable of transmitting letter-size document in under six minutes, a first at the time.

By the 1970s many companies around the world (particularly in the United States, Japan, and Germany) would be adopting the office fax machine. Indeed, the 70s and majority of the 80s would be the “golden age” for our friend the fax machine—in the late 80s it would be combined with photocopier equipment for the first time to create the first rudimentary multifunctional devices with Copy, Scan, Fax, capabilities. In 1985 the first PC-to-Fax communication technology would be developed and released with the fax board GammaFax. Fax boards allowed for computerized systems (PCs, Servers, etc.) to integrate directly with facsimile, and today’s fax servers and fax-capable MFPs are rooted in this technology.

Fax in Today's Digital Workplace

There are two reasons why the fax machine has been able to hang-on in an increasingly competitive and sophisticated digital workplace: The first is the lack of viable cost-equivalent alternatives to the technology from newer modes of communication such as email. The second reason is Fax’s success at adapting its medium to the digital workplace, direct PC-to-Fax communication abilities available with Fax Servers and Multifunctional devices.

Fax in Doctors OfficeDespite many attempts to replace it: a mixture of regulatory ambiguity, digital-age security concerns, and the sheer unwillingness on the part of businesses to let go of the reliable device, has allowed Fax to remain prevalent in the majority of the businesses worldwide.  This is particularly true in the U.S. health sector, where 75% of all communication occur by fax. Mostly due to the stringent (and often ambiguous) security standards set up by the HIPAA, the U.S. health-privacy law, which requires health providers to take certain security steps to safeguard their patient information. Because this rule explicitly mentions fax, many providers interpret the law to mean that records must be sent via fax. Other fields such as law enforcement, financial institutions, and legal practices also feature the fax machine prominently.

The perception of facsimile as an especially secure form of communication, comes from its inherently more secure “one-to-one” communication method. Like a phone call, a fax is being communicated quiet literally “over the phone” (Over the “public-switched telephones network” (PSTN). An acronym denoting the world’s collection interconnected telephone networks) it cannot be “hacked” in the traditional sense. The data only exists during the process of transmission (not withstanding any local-network storage you might have for fax) between the two fax-capable devices and while that connection is live. Just like a phone call once that connection is gone, so is the any of the data communicated.

Fax Servers

Physical fax servers have traditionally functioned using Direct-Inward-Dialing numbers (DID #s). DID numbers are a type of internal telecommunication service offered by phone companies, where for a certain fee they will set up what is in effect a private phone directory for your company; known as a “Private Branch Exchange” (PBX) system. 

 

Fax Server Diagram

fax serverPhone numbers in this internal telecommunications system are known as DID #s. A fax server is used to connect this PBX system of DID #s directly an external phone-line connecting to the global PSTNMessages sent from within the PBX will pass through the fax server and be sent as fax through the active PSTN line to be received by the intended recipient as a fax. Further, the message will appear to the recipient individual DID # (rather than just the telephone number of the fax server itself). As a fax server houses multiple lines (anywhere between 50-1000 lines), which are in turn linked to the individual DID#s of the Users’ within the PBX, the fax server can individualize the sender’s Fax # to match the sender’s internal DID number.  In this way a fax server can give your firm the capability to host an immense number of fax lines that can be reached internally and externally, saving you the immense cost and the logistical nightmare of having to actually have a fax machine for each individual user.

MFPs

For those who desire the functionality of sending a facsimile directly from a personal computer and without needing to scan a physical document, but don’t require the infrastructure (and associated costs) incumbent with a fax server or cloud-fax server an MFP (Multi-functional Printer/Peripheral) could be exactly what your small office needs. As we’ve discussed in our previous blog, your Multifunctional device is capable of many individual functions (copy, print, scan, fax, etc.). But its true value lies in the interoperability of those functionalities. That interoperability is showcased most of all in the case of the fax.

Xerox C405 & Sharp MX-3071

At Reliable, we often refer to our MFPs as having “fax server-lite” capabilities. Your MFP is capable of receiving a fax and converting that directly into a scanned document file without having to print a page. Multifunctionals has the internal processing power to convert this analog data directly into a computer language document of your choice and forward that fax along to the appropriate user in a variety of file formats. For outbound messages, your MFP can easily scan-to-fax physical documents or take a computer file and convert it to fax completely digitally with the same ease. In this way your MFP offers a similar level of digital integration capabilities of a fax server, just with more limited reach. Your MFP has at most two-fax lines, whilst a fax server can have a hundred or more lines— meaning that while any user can send a fax from your local network, all incoming fax message you receive will occur at the MFP. In other words, the fax itself cannot be sent directly to the recipient; that data will need to be forwarded along (in the appropriate file type) to the correct recipient internally.

MFP Fax Conversion Diagram

MX-FX15 Sharp Fax KitIf you are in the market for a device, it’s also important to recognize that fax capability is not inherent for all MFPs and in many cases it is a surcharge for the capability. The differs on a case-by-case basis with device depending on the OEMs specifications, and it times it can be counter-intuitive. For example, the Xerox Versalink C405DNM is an “all-in-one” desktop MFP and fax capability comes standard. However, on the much larger (and more capable) device the Sharp MX-3071 Advanced-Series, fax capability is an additional accessory to the standard device. With that being said, a fax-expansion kit for an MFPs where it is non-standard usually costs around $500-$600,  a fraction of the usual $2K+ price tag of a Fax Server (or the reoccurring monthly costs of an FaaS service like cloud-based servers). For a small doctor’s office, who by necessity must communicate via fax their client information, an MFP with fax is a no-brainer, cost-saver.

The Future of Fax

At the least it is safe to say the faxing will remain relevant so long as physical documents do, from a communication and legal perspective. Beyond that fax is a globally adopted standard since at least the 1970s, and faxing is an inherently more secure communication platform. This have given fax messages a legal status making them likely to be trusted under circumstances where an email might not be—making it unlikely to disappear soon. So while sales are diminishing for traditional stand-alone fax machines (and perhaps with them the perceived “presence” of fax in the workplace), the technologies usage has simply been transferred to more digitally-friendly platforms; Like the MFP and Fax Servers. In the more long-term, Faxing faces the prospect of the full digitization of the PTSN. But for now, the story of the Fax lives on. 

If you want to learn more about your printer options and the benefits of working with Reliable Office Technologies, call our office at (301)-695-0464  to speak with one of our team members or visit our site at www.rotcsolutions.com. We also look forward to hearing from you on any of our social networks!

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