Hung Up On Technology

What is the purpose of upgrading phone or communications system? After all, traditional phone systemsare fairly robust and have many years of useful service to provide. For many companies, upgrading their system is important if they’re to capitalise on all the benefits afforded by remote and mobile server access, not to mention all that e-commerce can offer. Companies must consider where they will be operating in the future, will there be requirement for remote workers? Will there be linking of multiple sites?

New communications technology such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is all very well for transporting voice data around the world, but does it save money and increase efficiency? Exactly what are the business drivers?

Business phone technology has been travelling down the pathway of convergence for some time. However, converged products that link voice, video and data traffic, which have historically been the domain of larger organisations, have now scaled down to SME level. Take the example of small company that, until recently, only had few phones on desks and one email address, with one person given the task of distributing the emails internally. Now that same company can have converged system with high-speed internet access, and every staff member has personal email address. Convergence is not just about phones on desks anymore.

Issues when upgrading
If your business is about to upgrade its phone system, your most vital decision is in selecting reputable reseller.

“Businesses need to be aware that any technology is only as good as the support provided for it,” says Steve Bower, country manager for NEC Corporate Network Solutions. “They should make sure they purchase from reputable reseller with proven track record of service and support.

Always check out the technology supplier’s future strategy with your system. Is there an upgrade path to any new technology, such as VoIP? Will existing technologies become obsolete, and is the customer’s current investment protected?”

Once you’ve selected your reseller, here are some checkpoints, courtesy of Agile New Zealand’s product marketing manager Dave Mason.

“Bandwidth is major requirement, any VoIP application requires plenty of it. With VoIP quality of service has been problem in the past, so consider how your existing network is set up.”

Mason suggests that companies carry out network audit: “It’s not high cost, and it’s good way to see how your network’s performing. Are the switches and routers giving priority to voice traffic?”

Mason understands how easy it is to become overwhelmed by all the technology options. “But the key question to ask is, how do we want our business to operate? If you know what you want to achieve in the future, responsible vendor should be able to come back with the appropriate options, which may or may not include such technologies as CTI, VoIP or wireless, to begin with.”

The evolutionary approach can be the most appropriate, as Atlas Gentech’s managing director Bill Borrmann points out. “Any business focusing on profits and the variety of its activities, needs to have cost-effective telecommunications system open to lots of applications, which comes in the form of an ongoing evolution of system architecture and design.”

Therefore, ultimately your system may have evolved to stage where it can indeed incorporate CTI (Computer Telephony Integration), VoIP, DECT Wireless, voice-mail, and connection via any of the network providers’ offerings – ie ISDN, video, packet switching (all digital data services), and other telco network-based products. “For company to make sense of all of this, they should consult with supplier that can cover the required ‘total solution’,” adds Borrmann.

Making sense of VoIP
Much has been written and said about VoIP, but the fact is, the technology has been slow to catch on for variety of reasons, not least of which has been the quality of service.

According to Dave Mason, VoIP is today largely deployed on IP trunking. “For example company with offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, which has an existing data infrastructure, will use IP to add voice transmission, and reap extra toll cost savings.”

Multi-sited companies should certainly investigate VoIP solution in conjunction with the sending and receiving of data, as it will keep service costs down.

NEC’s Steve Bower reports increased sales of VoIP systems, and that it is “definitely stimulating the PBX market”.

“With voice over IP, small branch offices can run off the head office PBX utilising all the features and functionality of the main PBX,” he says. “This can be large cost saving for the entire company and enables the more remote branches to have features that would normally exceed their budget.”

Although many view VoIP just as means of slashing toll charges, Mike Radford, product manager for Cogent Communications, believes toll bypass is generally minor cost justification. “The cost of making data network voice-capable plus the cost of leasing the data pipes between branches should be analysed against any achievable toll savings,” he says. “The telcos are very competitive in today’s toll market.

“The real gains for VoIP are in networking branches across WAN, allowing closer inter-working between staff, and more effective and efficient customer service,” adds Radford.

“Products and services such as centralised operator and voicemail are where cost savings can be achieved.”

With 33 VoIP sites at last count, SieTel New Zealand is leading player in the implementation of solutions using these emerging technologies. “One advantage of VoIP technology is that it can utilise diverse network mediums,” says SieTel sales manager Paul Pryor. “Our clients operate Siemens equipment with laser, IP networking, microwave, ADSL, Frame Relay and Dark Fibre technologies, which ensures that suitable mechanism is always within reach of their premises and budgets.”

Soft phones and other developments
The new breed of ‘IP soft phones’ (PC-based software that turns computer into phone extension) lend themselves ideally to remote deployment, and new generation of IP handsets are slowly making their way onto workers’ desks.

NEC’s latest IP phone, for example, comes with colour monitor that can be used in conjunction with voice call. There are also USB ports for keyboard and/or mouse, plus HTML/Java support, proprietary and H.323 (voice over internet) support.

Avaya has recently released colour screen-based ‘browser’ IP phone that not only features handset with keypad, but also allows users to browse the internet and process email. For many senior managers these IP phones can remove the need to have PC on the desk. However, not surprisingly, IP handsets are priced higher than traditional ones, so companies must look very closely at the advantages before making the IP investment.

“Research tells us that in three years’ time, some 30 percent of systems will be IP-based,” says Mason. “That still leaves 70 percent of companies taking the traditional approach.” He says that while companies can opt to throw all their old equipment out in favour of IP WAN-enabled solution, it is possible to IP-enable certain 10-year-old systems to give companies the “best of both worlds”. Indeed, the next two to three years will emerge as the age of the ‘hybrid PBX’, according to NEC’s Bower. “A hybrid PBX can deliver both pure ‘peer to peer’ IP telephony and traditional TDM technology. Because most companies can’t justify total IP voice solution either by cost savings or enhanced functionality, hybrid PBX is ideal. The business can use VoIP when appropriate.”

Because the quality of VoIP service has not always been 100 percent, manufacturers have had to look at other ways of getting around the quality issue. One answer is the IP soft phone ‘Dual Connect’ (from Avaya), which uses IP to provide the PC interface, and sta

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