Replacement and growth,” says Mark Straton, SVP of worldwide marketing for Siemens. “That’s how VoIP systems are being used in the enterprise right now.” While replacement and growth don’t sound too thrilling, the snowball has really just been tossed down the mountain when it comes to the speed and complexity of VoIP phone system rollouts. It will only gain momentum and prominence in telphony’s future.
VoIP—pronounced voyp—stands for Voice over Internet Protocol, which is a set of software and hardware that allows people to make and receive telephone calls by breaking up voice data into packets and sending them through the Internet using IP, rather than traditional analog transmissions over good old copper wire. One of VoIP’s major advantages is that sending calls through the Internet typically doesn’t cost anything above what the user is already paying to access the Internet. This is why VoIP phone services, like Vonage or Verizon’s VoiceWing, are substantially less than traditional phone services. On the surface, it may not sound like a significant change or advantage over regular telephony, but truly it is.
Your first thought, perhaps, is to question how re-wiring your entire business with fast Ethernet cabling is going to present cost savings over the already existing copper. If you run a modern business complete with Internet access, the good news is that you probably already have the necessary cabling and infrastructure in place. Then the only obstacle is changing out the PBXs with IP-capable phones and installing some software.
Because the existing telephony systems work well, though, adoption of this technology is focused “primarily in the replacement market,” says Straton. “People aren’t running out to get them. Basically, when telecom equipment ages, or new locations open up, that’s when businesses are considering an IP-based phone.”
The rollouts currently under way represent the first generation of VoIP systems. They provide basically the same service as the PBX systems, and even use the same architecture. The benefits exist in the reduced cost of placing calls and managing calls and billing through software. “No one goes with 100 percent IP phones,” says Straton, “because 30 percent of all ports are analog, supporting fax machines, modems, elevator telephones and so on.”
So, why bother? “There are benefits,” notes Straton. “If you have a data network that can support QoS, you can put new phones in new locations and eliminate redundancy. As long as mobile workers have access to the Internet and a portable PC, they can get a soft client for their computer, VPN into your network and have enterprise-class telephony wherever they are. They can even take their extension with them.”
The other major benefit of first generation VoIP systems is to consolidate networks. Rather than run two networks at each location, one for telephony and another for Internet and network functions, they can be combined into one system. “It’s especially useful for remote sites or satellite offices,” says Straton.
Barry Phillips of Citrix agrees. “You have a network cost reduction piece by putting voice traffic on the data network, so there’s no interconnect for long distance. The benefits are the fact that you have reduced administration costs because only one team of people manages the system.”
Jamal Saudi, of Royal Jordanian Airlines, says, “VoIP helped us to reduce costs and expand reachability. We no longer need two backbones, one for data and one for voice. This means our staff can enjoy more frequent communications with each other at a much lower cost.” Royal Jordanian Airlines uses a system developed by Atlanta-based SITA and has fully migrated all of its voice traffic to IP networks.
2G on the Way
So if the features and benefits of first-generation VoIP systems haven’t gotten your engine revving near redline yet, those offered by the second generation will.
2G VoIP systems are based on open telemetry, have fixed mobile convergence and operate fully on IP principles, while current systems tunnel calls through data networks. The open systems and IP environment allow the use of software applications through the Internet and can be run on the server and operating system of the customer’s choice. These systems can use any IP-enabled phone. The move to software-based models allows IT to run the data center like an application, rather than an entire network.
So if your business needs to increase its number of users, you will only have to purchase another communication license for that user, rather than install a hard line in an office or cubicle somewhere. That license will work locally across the site and over your own network worldwide. It’s a license model versus a hardware port model. Workers will be able to VPN in from anywhere and always have all their functionality. “The end user experience is unchanged. Service roams wherever the user is. On site, off site, he’s always connected, and he can even take that to PDAs with Wi-Fi, really anything,” says Siemens’ Straton. And, as 3G cellular networks become IP enabled, it will even work over cellular networks.
The next area of increased functionality is with user-centric communications such as location-based services and presence. The second generation VoIP systems will allow enterprises to integrate instant messaging and Web collaboration tools directly into the phones. The use of Web services can be embedded in business applications. “We used to spend $1.4 million a year on conferencing,” cites Straton. “By switching to IP-telephony, we’ve reduced that by $1.2 million per year.”
The real growth and explosion will occur as enterprises develop unique applications that will work over the phones to serve business needs. “Being able to alter the communications experience and embed in the business processes of the enterprise is going to be enormous,” says Citrix’s Phillips. “Initially, all applications will be packaged,” he continues, “but they’ll all have business value and ROI behind them. They’re easy to install and easy to sell.”
These days it’s easier to use a cell phone than it is to use a desktop phone. So, what if your desktop started behaving more like your cell, with predictive typing, like T9? “It needs to change,” says Phillips. “This is where the first bunch of IP telephony applications are going to come from, simplifying the user interface, simplifying transfers.” All the information can be available at your fingertips.
“Now that Cisco has IP phones with XML browsers, design studios can take Web apps and put them in the phone,” continues Phillips. “Companies like Everypath focus on applications for the wireless Web. The power of taking Web-based applications and putting them onto desk phones that connect over a converged network will be commendable.”
Soon you’ll be able to choose directories and instantaneously have emergency communications, send text and graphical messages to co-workers, use audio to capture attention and more. “From the user side, the interface is simple. On the IT admin side, there’s no software to maintain,” says Phillips. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
One company that’s already making productive use of VoIP systems is the University of North Carolina Hospital. “In hospitals, there are many pages sending a specific person to a specific room,” explains Greg Fitts, a communications analyst with UNC Hospitals. We’ve found that the pages can not only be disturbing to patients, but many times by the time the right person gets to the right room, the situation has changed or been resolved.”
In order to reduce overhead pages and make them more efficient, UNC Hospitals turned to SpectraLink. “We’ve had SpectraLink for three years and have 285 phones deployed. The majority of phones are in nursing units and have been integrated with the Nurse Call button in patient rooms,” says Fitts. In the past, when a patient needed something, he or she hit the Nurse Call button, which routed an intercom call to the nursing station. From there, it was up to the secretary to decide who was the most appropriate person to respond to the request. For pain medication, a nurse would be called. For bathroom help, an aide. “The goal was to send the right person to the right room with the right equipment.”
Now, when a patient pushes the button, the call goes directly to the nurse, wherever she is, and she knows where she’s going and why.
“We’ve been very pleased,” says Fitts, “Especially in the larger unit where nurses are responsible for a larger number of patients. The overhead pages are reduced, and more specific info is in the nurses’ hands.”
Fitts admits that there was some tweaking involved in getting the system to work flawlessly. “We’re using the same Cisco APs for the SpectraLink phones as for the CPOE wireless laptops, which are obviously geared more toward data applications. The first few months were tough. We had to fix the applications and get signal strengths right in order to get good reception in the entire hospital.”
It also helps the nurses when they need to page a doctor. Previously, they had to page the doctor to the main number. “Often, five or even 20 minutes would pass before the doctor called back, at which point the nurses were often involved with someone else and may not get back to the phone,” says Fitts. “Now they can page the MD directly to their phone. Each phone has its own number, so the nurse is ensured of getting the page back.”
As with many technology deployments, there was some mixed reaction from the nurses. “Some can’t live without it, others would like to never see any technology,” says Fitts. Originally for nursing units, the solution has expanded to some service-oriented staff. “They use it for mobility instead of cell phones, which are not allowed in the hospital.”
The primary benefit has been to cut down overhead pages, which was the original goal. “Nurses no longer log as many miles on the floor, and patients no longer have to wait for the service they need.”