With its move to a new head office this fall, Manitoba Blue Cross will not only consolidate employees from its old, outgrown Winnipeg headquarters and three satellite offices set up in recent years to handle the overflow, but simplify its communications infrastructure and take its first tentative steps into voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP).
The move will start on the Thanksgiving weekend, said Steve Fonseca, vice-president of management information systems at Manitoba Blue Cross, and continue in phases over the ensuing few weeks.
When it’s done, all the non-profit organization’s 230 employees will be in one place – 599 Empress St. in Winnipeg – and all their telephones will be connected to Blue Cross’s main private branch exchange (PBX). That will allow Blue Cross to eliminate an old phone switch used at one of the present satellite offices and move off Centrex service at another (the third satellite office has been set up as a remote location on the central PBX, Fonseca said).
Fonseca expects the change to simplify telecommunications management. To make his team’s life even easier, he added, software will be added to allow Blue Cross technical staff to move, add and change phones without having to call in the telephone company.
Manitoba Blue Cross will also be upgrading its call centre software, Nortel Networks Corp.’s Symposium system, as part of the move. This won’t involve significant new functions, Fonseca said; it’s simply a matter of catching up after falling a couple of releases behind the vendor’s latest version.
Perhaps most significant, Blue Cross will use the occasion of the move to IP-enable its PBX. It’s not time for a wholesale change, Fonseca said, since the old switch still has a few years’ life left in it, but adding support for IP telephony will let the organization start experimenting with a technology that Fonseca hopes could be the basis for developing applications to speed up work flow and make Blue Cross more efficient.
It won’t all happen at once, though, and information systems staff will start by using themselves as guinea pigs. They will get IP phones in an initial pilot designed to try out the technology and see what problems arise. Fonseca said no definite timetable has been established for rolling out VOIP to the rest of the organization.
Moving to VOIP has several potential benefits for businesses, said Jon Arnold, a telecommunications consultant and president of J. Arnold & Associates in Toronto. It can bring productivity benefits through capabilities such as unified messaging – bringing voice, e-mail and even fax messages together in one place – and remote access to the full features of the office phone system. VOIP can simplify telephone moves, adds and changes, Arnold added, and it can save money both in the capital cost of equipment and in operating costs, particularly by eliminating long-distance charges between remote offices.
Arnold noted that a move to IP will also put Manitoba Blue Cross in a better position to consider switching to managed IP services from its phone company when its present PBX reaches the end of its useful life. In contrast to traditional Centrex services, which offer somewhat limited features compared to a PBX, he said, managed IP services can match the capabilities of an in-house system.
MTS Allstream Inc., Manitoba Blue Cross’s telecommunications provider, offers managed IP services and could help the company move in that direction if it wanted to do so in future, MTS spokesman Brad Burch said.
Moving in stages to the new headquarters will present Blue Cross with some interesting telecommunications challenges. The phone system will actually be moved piece by piece, Fonseca said, as employees relocate. MTS Allstream will help Blue Cross through this process.
During the move, MTS Allstream will provide temporary fibre and data connections to allow for a gradual transition, Burch said. The carrier will also help with the software upgrade to Blue Cross’s call centre system, and will be supplying its MTS TV IP-based television service to Blue Cross. MTS TV is primarily aimed at the consumer market, Burch noted, but businesses can use it for such purposes as providing television in waiting rooms.