After years of failing to live up to its hype, voice over IP is finally starting to go somewhere, but is it the best answer for every organization?

“”It’s ready for takeoff,”” says Iain Grant, managing director of telecommunications research firm Seaboard Group in Montréal.

Some early adopters

were disappointed, either because the voice quality wasn’t up to snuff or because expected cost savings didn’t materialize. Some customers even gave up on the technology. But VoIP has improved, Grant says. And while it can save money, the more important benefits lie in the applications that run on it.

When the idea of routing phone calls over an IP network first arose, it was seen as a way of drastically cutting the cost of long-distance phone bills. Toll bypass, as this was called, was briefly expected to revolutionize the telecommunications industry. But as long-distance charges fell — partly because carriers responded to the toll-bypass threat and in some cases implemented voice over IP in their own operations — the price gap narrowed. It also became obvious that the public Internet would not offer good enough voice quality for anyone except penny-pinching technology enthusiasts.

Corporate networks are a different matter. A reasonably solid IP network can handle both voice and data comfortably, provided it’s engineered properly to give voice traffic priority when needed.

“”People are starting to see that this stuff works,”” says Jon Arnold, VoIP program leader at technology research firm Frost & Sullivan in Toronto. “”It’s a more economical way to go, and it gives me a lot more functionality than I’ve ever had before.””

“”Companies are really starting to push ahead,”” agrees Sean Gonsalves, an IP communications consultant with Infostream Technologies Inc., a Richmond Hill, Ont., systems integrator.

Arnold says potential costs savings is once again the reason companies are taking a second look at VoIP. The attraction today is not toll bypass — although this can still be a significant benefit for organizations with widely separated offices linked by a private network — but the efficiency of operating one internal network rather than two. Arnold says that means a smaller capital outlay, lower operating costs and simplified management.

So it was for Whitby, Ont.-based Totten Sims Hubicki Associates. Kam Mohammed, the engineering firm’s IT manager, says six voice tie lines formerly linked two offices, each of which had its own private branch exchange (PBX). Replacing the PBXes with a VoIP system saved the cost of the tie lines, the cost of one PBX, and the expense of running separate wiring for voice when the firm moved one of its offices from one floor of a building to another.

Moving extensions is also much easier now, and the IP system is simpler to manage, Mohammed says.

Trevor Corey, associate partner at international management consulting firm Accenture, says his firm has typically seen savings in the 20- to 50-per-cent range. “”The more dispersed your work force is, the more attractive the idea is going to be,”” adds Arnold.

But that’s not all, Grant says. “”Our contention is the advantages are not just the savings. The more important stuff is what you do later, but you can’t put a net present value on that.””

Combining voice and data on one network enables applications to take advantage of convergence. A common example is unified messaging.

“”Now you have all your messages coming to one location,”” Arnold says. “”Your voice mail, your e-mail, your cellphone, your faxes, they can all be in one spot.””

Presence detection is another feature that can let a co-worker know if the person he or she wants to reach is in the office or on the phone, allowing people to choose whether to call or send e-mail.

The ability to pop up customer information on the computer screen as a call comes in is nothing new in call centres, but an integrated phone system makes it possible on any IP phone, says Pat Rudolph, director of solutions architecture at networking and VoIP vendor 3Com Corp.

Voice over IP can integrate remote sites more effectively than conventional phone systems, says Cindy Rylan-Glynn, director of consulting services at Montréal-based CGI Group Inc.

An example is the way Totten Sims Hubicki’s receptionist can now hand off calls to the firm’s second office and see whether they are answered, whereas with the old system she did so blindly, Mohammed says.

VoIP can allow for simplified dialing between distant offices and even to home-workers, as well as make it easy to reroute calls and move or add phones quickly.

“”Two or three years from now,”” Arnold predicts, “”I think you’ll start to see that companies that adopt this technology are a little more competitive than those that do not.””

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