As president of Maritime Steel and Foundries Ltd. of Halifax, Don Cameron conducts a great deal of business by phone. So when his company — a manufacturer of bridges and steel supports — decided to replace an aging Private Branch Exchange (PBX) with a voice-over-IP (VoIP) platform in 2000, quality

of service, convenience and reliability were just a few of his top concerns.

Three years later, there’s no question his company made the right decision, he says. “”I don’t see a bit of difference — the quality is every bit as good and my phone has never been down,”” says Cameron. “”I’ve never had an ounce of problem with it.””

Virtual tie line

Voice-over-IP technology has proven so cost effective, he adds, the company recently expanded its platform — the NBX 100 phone system from 3Com Corp. — to provide long-distance service between its structural steel division in Dartmouth, N.S. (now considered part of Halifax), and a foundry division in New Glasgow, N.S. Employees in either location can reach each other by dialling a three-digit extension, whether they’re calling someone across the hall or two hours away, without incurring long-distance charges.

Sean Green, Maritime Steel’s manager of information systems, says the sites are taking advantage of the NBX 100’s Virtual Tie Line, which creates an open line between the NBX in Halifax and the second NBX recently installed in New Glasgow.

“”There are other ways to connect IP systems together, but not with the same simplicity,”” says Green. “”Basically, you pick up your set, hit three digits, and you’re talking to a co-worker over our network routers.””

The VoIP platform works on Maritime Steel’s existing switched Ethernet data network that Green says was already robust enough to support voice traffic. Each NBX, although connected to the network via a switch, is a standalone chassis with its own operating system and power supply, so if a network server fails, the phone system still operates. Calls are managed and prioritized using eight analogue phone lines, an improvement over the 12 lines required for the previous PBX system, he adds.

Unlike the old phone system, which was costly to maintain and required constant servicing from a third party located more than two hours away, the VoIP platform is administered solely by Green. If a new employee requires a phone, he simply plugs it into the existing Category 5 cabling, he says, and if there’s no handset available, he sets up a “”soft set,”” allowing a PC to be used to make and receive calls via a headpiece attached through the USB port.

In addition to saving on long-distance costs between divisions, Green has also configured the phone system to save voice mail messages as .wav files that can be forwarded as e-mail. When executives are away on business, they use their laptops to retrieve voice mail, eliminating the need to dial in for messages. Incoming calls can also be forwarded to “”hunt groups”” so that if an extension isn’t answered after a specified number of rings, the call will automatically be sent to a different device.

“”A user has the flexibility of moving around quite easily,”” says Jerry Gushue, 3Com’s regional account manager for Atlantic Canada. “”As long as you plug into the network, the network will find you.””

System helps cut costs

According to Gushue, Maritime Steel’s decision to go with VoIP is representative of other companies facing the same situation. “”The opportunities we’re seeing now are clients that have to make a decision — either expand their present system or replace it,”” he says. “”At the same time they’re considering a voice over IP platform as an alternate.””

In addition to the foundry and structural steel divisions, 10 users at Maritime Steel’s corporate office — located about 1 km from the structural division in Dartmouth — are also connected to VoIP using a wireless bridge from Lucent that was already in place for data file transfers. Now all that remains, says Cameron, is to connect a third company location in Charlottetown.

“”We make so many long-distance calls, this system pays for itself very quickly,”” he says. “”But it’s not only the payment, it’s the convenience.””

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