B.C. city uses IP telephony to track performance, offer new services

Centred in the heart of the B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Coquitlam may not be the first city to come to mind when you think “”showcase e-community.”” But look beyond the picturesque parks and serenity, and you’ll find a booming city; one that is taking advantage of Internet Protocol telephony to bring new

services to its residents.

In 2002, Coquitlam embarked on a $5-million project to build an on-line community Web portal, receiving assistance from Industry Canada’s Smart Communities program. Meanwhile, it took a hard look at its existing telephony infrastructure and realized most city departments were still served by a 10-year-old Centrex service that lacked the functionality and features to support an e-community.

“”We wanted to ensure that our phone system would be able to provide consistent services with what we were able to provide over the Internet,”” says Rick Adams, the city’s manager of information and communications technology. According to Adams, the existing phone system was high-priced, didn’t offer auto attendant capabilities, was unable to support the adds, moves and changes that come with the city’s seasonal fluctuations, and generally lacked standards.

Administrators can measure call wait times

After publishing a request for proposal that looked at both digital and converged IP infrastructures, the city chose to install the Communications Server 1000, an IP private branch exchange made by Nortel Networks Corp. At the same time, it launched a separate project to replace the leased lines connecting its three campus locations with fibre.

Using the services of a Nortel reseller, the implementation was rolled out building by building, with training sessions held simultaneously so that employees were greeted by a new phone on their desks as soon as they walked out of class. About 20 internal customers were involved in the decision-making process and one of the main deciding factors was the ease of use of the handset, says Adams, who advises others looking at IP telephony not to forget about the device itself.

Taking advantage of the city’s existing Ethernet wide-area data network, the new phone system spans roughly 14 kilometres. One of the most notable changes since its installation last year is that the city now has a means to track performance indicators it had no way of knowing in the past. For example, network administrators get access to statistics such as average wait times and reasons for calling. It is also able to operate like a virtual call centre, so calls are routed to the next available person, regardless of location.

Unified messaging, a feature scheduled for rollout this year, promises to change the way city employees work, allowing them to save voice messages as part of a permanent record for legal purposes. And gone are the days of calling a service provider when phones need to be moved temporarily to support community registration programs; now employees just log onto their new phone and their number is transferred with them, says Adams.

System can automatically call groups of people

The City of Coquitlam plans to use its IP telephony system to launch innovative on-line services. In the case of community alerts, for example, the system can be programmed to call groups of residents automatically under certain circumstances.

“”If a water main breaks … we should be able to go into our geographical information system, pull up all of the phone numbers for the people affected and have the phone system automatically start phoning them,”” says Adams.

While quality of service is good on the converged network, Adams expects it to improve once the fibre is laid. One outstanding issue relates to the switching equipment used by public telephone system carriers. According to Adams, certain trunk lines can occasionally create an echo or feedback — only discernible at the city’s end of the line when accessing the outside world. “”Ultimately when major carriers upgrade their networks, this will go away,”” he says.

By replacing its aging Centrex service with an IP network positioned for the future, the city is looking at cutting its telecom costs by about $200,000. In the meantime, it is positioned to offer everything residents expect from an e-community: computer telephony integration to answer public inquiries quickly and accurately; a new fibre wide-area network that can be used by schools, enterprises and service providers; an innovation centre with Internet-connected computers for use by local businesses; and, 24-hour public information access, including public wireless hot spots.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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