Kelowna to build video, call conference on top of IP network

Say voice over IP were a train leaving the station. The public sector — or large government departments — would be among the last to board. Ahead in line are the municipalities and the universities, along with health care.

And while the move to consolidate voice and data networks might now be the accepted standard in terms of long-term planning, it usually only happens when current systems are too old or too expensive to keep operating.

“We’re finding for IP telephony the big trigger usually is when the organization wants to try to do something it can’t do with existing systems,” said Gary Cameron, vice-president of enterprise accounts with Bell Canada.

That was the case for the City of Kelowna, B.C., said Rob Entwhistle, manager of networks and special projects for the city. Kelowna, which implemented a Telus/Cisco-based voice over IP system in the fall of 2004, was dealing with eight antiquated, disparate phones systems used in 12 separate locations throughout this city of 105,000 located in the south central region of the province. Those systems couldn’t talk to each other and in some cases were either failing or getting so old there was no longer any support for them, he said. That lack of integration was no longer acceptable for the municipality.

“Cities are unique in one sense in that we’re one entity but we’re many corporations running under that umbrella … everything from fire halls to rec centres to pollution control plants, airports and city hall,” explained Entwhistle. “The reason we needed to tie it together was someone would call the yards building for some information, but it was actually landfill that would have to answer it. Before they would say, ‘please hang up and call this number.’ Now everything is a quick transfer and you get people to where they need to be.”

Today Kelowna has two Cisco Call Managers, Unity voice mail, voice gateways and about 400 VoIP phones, including the 7920 wireless phone. One of the biggest benefits of the system is the call centre capability, Entwhistle said. There is a call queuing application for the rec centre to help deal with the sheer volume of calls the city gets at registration times.

“We can handle more users calling in and they (staff) have a better sense of who’s on the line. They had rudimentary call queuing before but now through the PC they can see more of what’s waiting and do reports after,” he said.

Kelowna’s one-window service at City Hall also uses VoIP, as does the tax department. Plans are to implement video and call conferencing.

So far, cost savings are hard to quantify. “Were still working on some of those,” he said. But, he adds, “We can start retiring a lot of the interconnect lines.”

Kelowna had been running a 100MB Telus fibre optic wide-area network since 1998, which is why the city was comfortable enough to consider moving the phone network over, he said. “We felt VoIP had arrived.”

That sentiment is not shared by all organizations yet, though, said Brantz Myers, director of enterprise marketing at Cisco Systems of Canada.

“Some people still think the tools may not be ready, and we have to demonstrate to them with some of our 22 cities and towns in Canada that have already deployed it that it is truly reliable, voice quality excellent, it scales and it works wonderfully,” said Myers.

VoIP Is especially attractive to municipalities because it promises cost savings as well as Increased productivity, he said. “Productivity doesn’t just equal dollars, it equals the smooth transition of phone calls and the satisfaction of taxpayers getting answers quickly.”

But costs savings are not the only reason government organizations are taking a closer look at IP — and at the vendors who provide the technology, said Bell’s Cameron. “Three years ago decisions being made … were very focused on price, so the vendors who were able to position the biggest cost savings were picking up more of the contracts,” he said. “Since then customers and vendors have become more knowledgeable about how you transition from a legacy to an IP telephony system. There’s a lot more complexity than I think was initially envisioned, and now I think there’s a greater reliance on service and quality of both the deployment and post-sales support.”

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