The skinny with voice and data convergence

With engineers in its Mississauga, Ont., and Los Angeles offices averaging an hour a day on inter-office phone calls, Bioscrypt Inc. saw savings potential in a phone system based on Internet Protocol (IP).

About a year ago, the biometrics firm put in a Voice Over IP (VoIP) system that routes

calls over an existing virtual private network between locations.

The system saves money, says Trevor Jackson, IT manager at Bioscrypt, and it’s convenient for Bioscrypt employees who now dial four digits instead of 11 to reach colleagues in the other office. Voice quality was patchy at first, though. “We found that if, say, an engineer was sending plans while a voice communication was going on, it would cause the call to stutter,” Jackson said.

That was because large data transmissions caused delays in the voice packets. A router with Quality of Service (QoS) capabilities to give priority to voice traffic fixed the problem. Like many VoIP adopters, Bioscrypt has seen real benefits but also learned that networks often need tweaking to handle voice smoothly.

Research firm Frost & Sullivan Inc. recently reported that while

Canadian VoIP adoption slightly lags that in the U.S., shipments of IP voice lines increased about 135 per cent from 2001 to 2002, to more than 147,000 lines.

Few companies throw out perfectly good legacy PBXs to move to VoIP, but

Frost & Sullivan says those needing to replace aging systems or equip new offices will increasingly look to IP.

Dan McLean, director of enterprise network services research at IDC

(Canada) Ltd. in Toronto, says IP telephony is slowly but surely eating into traditional private branch exchange (PBX) territory. But, he adds, implementations are not always quite as simple as customers expect.

“There’s some work to be done, I think, around figuring out whether your network can support voice over IP.”

Jim Metzler, a consultant with Ashton, Metzler & Associates in Sanibel,

Fla., says IP telephony is now moving from being used only by a small group of early adopters to the “early majority” stage of market development.

Metzler lists five top benefits of IP telephony: cheaper calls between company sites; lower administration costs than with traditional phone systems; easier deployment of integrated voice and data applications; ability to deploy fancy calling features such as three-way calling to smaller offices; and cheaper international calling.

However, Metzler also points to some drawbacks. The biggest by far, cited by 37 per cent of customers surveyed, is that deployment is harder than expected. Next on the list come problems with call quality.

Rounding out the top five complaints were: systems were harder to manage than anticipated; vendors made false claims; and companies haven’t been able to cut network staffs as they hoped.

Some complaints come down to expectations. As McLean says, in the early days of Internet telephony, many people thought the technology would be very easy to implement. That was an exaggeration. Yet those who do the work seem pleased with the results.

When doing VoIP installations, Burnaby, B.C.-based Telus Corp. strongly recommends doing an IP telephony readiness report on the customer network first. Telus charges for doing this, but if the customer agrees to it, the carrier will guarantee the VoIP system’s performance for 30 days.

Jeremy Urwin, a technical sales support director with Telus, tells of a customer whose LAN manager refused to have Telus do a readiness report before going live, even when offered a discount on the work.

“The first two calls went through flawlessly, ” Urwin says. “The third call dropped, and guess who that was? That was the CIO.” Telus belatedly did the readiness report, the network was adjusted – and the customer has a new LAN administrator.

“That assessment is key to making sure you get the right budgets approved, making sure you’ve set the right expectations as far as timelines go,” says Piero Romani, national director of solutions enablement at NexInnovations Inc., a Mississauga, Ont., reseller and integrator that helps users prepare for VoIP installations. But reports vary as to how likely a pre-installation assessment is to find shortcomings in the average network.

Tracy Fleming, senior technical consultant at Avaya Canada Corp. in

Markham, Ont., says few networks are ready to run VoIP without any tweaking. Only about 15 per cent of networks Avaya assesses need hardware upgrades to support voice, Fleming says, but another 80 per cent need significant reconfiguration, such as adding QoS provisions.

Romani says the core of the network is often “pretty well there,” but “the edge is a different story.” One common issue is the need to replace edge devices to provide power to IP phones. Unlike phone systems, data networks don’t traditionally carry power for devices connected to them.

Customers contemplating VoIP over longer distances also need to consider the capacity of their wide-area network (WAN) links, Romani says.

On the other hand, Trent Ready, business development manager for voice at 3Com Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., says most networks have no significant problems. “We find that there’s not a lot of requirements coming out of assessments,” he says.

Pre-installation assessment of BioScrypt’s network found it already met the requirements for VoIP, Jackson says.

Another organization, Ontario’s Brant County Health Unit, didn’t even do a pre-installation assessment, because its its infrastructure roughly doubled vendor 3Com’s minimum specifications on all counts, says Rob

Bannerman, the health unit’s network administrator. He added all went well with the installation.

BOC Edwards, a division of BOC Group plc in Wilmington, Mass., had to replace or upgrade a number of 100 Mbps Ethernet switches to provide QoS capabilities. Wide-area links were sufficient because the company had T1 links to every site, says Martin Cox, technical services manager for planning and development.

The basic requirement for VoIP success in the LAN seems to be that connections to the desktop are switched rather than shared, and that there are “no hubs anywhere,” says Sean Gonsalves, systems engineer in the data network solutions group of Oshawa, Ont.-based Cygnal Technologies Corp.

Gonsalves adds users should check bandwidth utilization and add QoS features if network links are already busy. QoS is a better answer than just adding bandwidth, says Gonsalves.

“As long as that link can be saturated by data some user will do it,” he says.

The work of preparing for a successful VoIP installation may seem daunting at first glance, but if the job is done right it becomes worthwhile in the long term, judging by some early adopters.

Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto expects long-term savings of $3,000 to

$7,000 per month on telephony moves, adds and changes thanks to a recent VoIP installation, says Dr. Lynn Nagle, the hospital’s chief information officer.

Bannerman at the Brant County health unit especially likes the point-and-click administration of his 3Com VoIP system. He also likes the ability to set up hunt groups, so calls to a single extension number can be redirected to different people – handy when the health unit publishes a number for inquiries on a particular subject.

When Internet telephony first gained attention, its greatest potential was thought to be in cheaper long-distance calling. Thanks mostly to declining long-distance costs, this benefit turned out not to be as important as expected – but companies with significant voice traffic among remote offices do find using IP telephony over wide-area network links saves money. At BOC Edwards, for instance, “we’ve seen probably 30- to 35-per-cent reductions in toll calls at sites,” Cox says.

Seamless links among distant offices open up some new possibilities too, such as one company Ready cites that transfers important customer calls that reach its Vancouver office at lunchtime to its Toronto office where more staff are available to answer them. Virtual call centres spread across multiple locations become relatively easy to implement. The ability to put call-centre features anywhere has been “a huge enabler for us,” says Cox.

Bruce Thompson, director of marketing for Vancouver-based reseller Glenbriar Technologies, says multiple-office customers were the “low-hanging fruit,” accounting for most VoIP sales two or three years ago, but Glenbriar is now seeing more single-office installations where the selling points include unified messaging and other applications that take advantage of voice-data integration.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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