The third wave of VoIP

DependableIT’s headquarters is in Burlington, Ont., with branches in Scarborough, Mississauga and Windsor. But as far as its phone system is concerned, the technical support firm could all be in one place.

When DependableIT’s director of customer service, Cheryl Lewis, picks up the phone in Burlington to call a co-worker in Windsor, “he might just as well be right beside me,” she says. Lewis dials an extension just as if she were calling within her own building. And someone from outside the company could reach Lewis, that colleague in Windsor or anyone else at DependableIT by dialing one central number.

Behind this is a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system, manufactured by Avaya Inc., tying the four offices together. Besides almost erasing the geographic boundaries between DependableIT’s offices VoIP also lets remote workers — such as technicians on service calls — operate almost as if they were in the office. For instance, says Lewis, a remote technician can place long-distance calls through the head-office.

DependableIT’s experience illustrates what might be called the third wave of VoIP. When VoIP first attracted attention in the late 1990s, its great promise was that it would “make long-distance free,” says Phil Edholm, chief technology officer and vice-president of architecture for Nortel Networks Corp. That hasn’t happened, largely because long-distance costs have fallen enough that VoIP only saves companies significant amounts of money on overseas calls.

The second wave for VoIP was the promise of reducing costs within the building or campus, either through combining voice and data on to one network or by making it easier to moves, adds or change phone extensions.

Those arguments are still credible for many organizations, but another aspect of VoIP is getting increased attention. The technology can help organizations unify multiple locations, mobile workers and telecommuters.

Up to about four and a half years ago, traditional phone systems accounted for most of Mitel Corp.’s sales, says Don Smith, the Ottawa-based vendor’s CEO. But during the last quarter, 98 per cent of its shipments were IP-based systems.

For international operations, the biggest attraction of VoIP is still lowering long-distance calling costs, particularly on overseas calls, says Roberta Fox, president of Fox Group, a Markham, Ont.-based consulting firm. For mid-sized and even large national companies, the most compelling benefits are capabilities such as four-digit dialing among distant offices and consistent communications capabilities in every location.

Four- or five-digit dialing among offices is possible with traditional private branch exchanges and tie trunks, but VoIP makes it affordable for smaller organizations, and adds capabilities like the ability to see whether a distant colleague is on the phone before transferring a call.
Fox Group’s own VoIP system allows consultants working at home to appear as extensions on the company’s phone system. Anyone in the company — including a home worker — can pick up a call to the main number. And even though Fox has employees in three Canadian provinces and the U.S., she says, “I can do a page all and page everybody in the company.”

And VoIP offers advantages like centralized call-detail recording, says Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader at Avaya Canada. “With traditional phone systems you would have had to have 20 call detail recorders plugged into those systems and then somebody would have had to sit down and reconcile that.”

Virtual contact centre
VoIP is paving the way for the virtual contact centre, because the technology no longer requires that all agents be in one place.

“The idea of having a call centre staff that’s actually working out of their homes is very, very doable,” says Jim Johannsson, director of consumer product development at Burnaby, B.C.-based Telus Corp. While few organizations have gone that far yet, a number are spreading contact-centre functions around the organization.

The Visiting Nurse Service of New York had multiple call centres, none with room to expand. Calls were shunted from one agent to another, and often agents would ask the same questions the caller had just answered, says Randy Cleghorne, director of IT planning and management for the New York City agency. Using VoIP, the Visiting Nurse Service linked the multiple centres into a single virtual call centre, so calls can be distributed to regional offices.

Integrating voice and data makes it easier to provide capabilities like unified messaging and presence awareness, says Paul Rowe, vice-president of enterprise marketing at Montreal-based Bell Canada.

Edholm says is Nortel is emphasizing in-house conferencing in marketing VoIP. One of its advantages, he says, is that it makes it easy to set up “meet-me” conferences where all participants call one number rather than one party calling the other participants. The idea of joining a conference rather than simply calling someone at a pre-arranged time seems to encourage people to be prompt, Edholm says, and avoids telephone tag that otherwise arises when one party is unavailable at the planned time. “Over time more and more communications will be based on conferencing.”

VoIP’s possibilities are most interesting over a wide area, and of course that means a more ambitious implementation than a few IP phones in one office. But experts say taking VoIP to the WAN doesn’t increase the technical challenges much beyond what you would face on the LAN. “Most customers have to upgrade their LAN,” Fox says, and WAN bandwidth may need similar beefing up to support VoIP traffic.

Lewis says DependableIT had a “pretty painless” VoIP implementation and didn’t need to upgrade its network, but that was largely because the network was up to date to begin with. After all, she notes, “that’s the business that we’re in.”

Because a segment of the WAN could be unavailable, Smith says, the phone system needs redundancy and ways of failing over with as little disruption as possible. Proper handling of emergency 911 calls is a greater concern when an IP system covers multiple locations – technology is now appearing that can help with this by identifying an IP phone’s location automatically, he adds.

The rise of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) promises to further increase VoIP’s ability to eliminate distance.

Edholm says SIP will allow more intelligent communication. It will manage multiple communication devices for a single user, find the person wherever he or she is and identify the most appropriate means of communication in the circumstances.

He takes himself as an example. A SIP server at a Nortel facility in Richardson, Tex., manages all of his communications devices. If he is overseas, only a few people can reach him by cellphone, to save on high roaming charges. If he is with a customer, only his wife and kids can reach him by cellphone. But when Edholm tells the system he is online in an overseas hotel room, anyone can reach him through his soft phone.

SIP has various implementations
It can go farther. For example, SIP could allow hotel guests to have personal calls routed to their room phones.

“What makes SIP really exciting,” Edholm says, “is it really begins that change of paradigm, moving communications from being device-to-device to being user-to-user.”

A few wrinkles remain to be worked out, though. One is security. Because SIP is highly extensible, it is difficult to test all possible permutations to make sure it is secure, says Victoria Fodale, a research analyst at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat. Interoperability is also a concern.

“Today it’s not quite as standard as people would want it to be,” Smith says. Mixing equipment from different vendors still tends to uncover variations in SIP implementations that cause headaches. But he does not see the incompatibilities as a major roadblock, and predicts that once they are ironed out, SIP “will be the lingua franca of online communications.”

Edholm says VoIP’s future depends more on users than on technology. “Killer apps” like the first spreadsheet and the Web grew out of people thinking up ways of using new technology in new ways, he says, and VoIP will be no different.

“I think we are really at the very beginning now of seeing VoIP as not being a way to do telephony on the IP network (but) as a really revolutionary way to communicate.”

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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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