Will you have to make wholesale changes to your equipment portfolio to support convergence? Gary Flood sees what devices are required to make convergence work for your company
Two years ago moving to a converged voice and data system would have been seen as a move mainly for only the most technically fearless companies.
Now the shift toward a voice over IP (VoIP) future seems to be gathering more and more pace. But in this future, what happens to your existing phone investment?
It's a reasonable question, surely. No one wants to junk perfectly serviceable equipment that represents solid investment, and if most of the uses of that kit - making phone calls either within the company or to customers - is the same whether the call travels down copper, broadband or WiFi, why reinvent the wheel?
The good news is that now you can have both. It's perfectly feasible to install a new IP-based communications system and keep your existing office handsets. But as you are ready to move more aggressively into the IP-network world you can swap those phones for IP versions that are indistinguishable in functionality, and comparable in price.
"It's true to say four years ago a VoIP phone cost a lot more than a conventional one," says Tim Nelson, market manager at BT Retail's SME business. "But now that's only true for higher-end phones in that range, such as those offering browser and colour screen capability."
One of the leading IP kit manufacturers, Cisco, confirms that with its 7900 series of IP devices there is a price differential, but nothing like as scary as it used to be.
"An entry-level phone without a display will cost less than £100 with the top end more like £400," says David Atkinson, consultant systems engineer for Cisco's UK IP Telephony operation. "But the average we sell is at the £200 mark, which is always much cheaper with volume discount. No, it's not as cheap as the £10 analogue phone you can buy at the corner shop, but then it's not that much more expensive than a good digital phone either."
It must be said that any cost-benefit analysis of IP versus old-style split communication must include more than one factor. That £10 phone needed a dedicated port on the office PABX as well as the other costs of maintaining a directory for it and monitoring is employee use or abuse. And Forrester Research predicts the cost per endpoint of an IP business phone should reach parity with the cost per endpoint of a traditional or TDM (time-division multiplexing) phone during 2005.
Still, it's got to be good to know going IP doesn't have to mean an orgy of new equipment. A good example of how simple it is to link the old with the new is broadband, which will allow you to make telephone calls using a high-speed ADSL connection, meaning your staff could call from any location with a broadband connection using their existing phones.
But it's fair to say that going IP just on the network and not on the device - the thing you interface to that network to - is not taking full advantage of convergence.
"Because of the open protocols and APIs, and the fact that devices are uniquely identified on the network, IP devices can do much more than traditional phones," says Nelson. "Any device - IP phone, PDA, PC - can be plugged in and made instantly active with its own predetermined profile, offering great flexibility, like the ability to move users at will without a heavy administrative burden.
IP phones can also be linked to a central directory, so that users can look anyone up on the screen of the phone, and they can also act as internet appliances in their own right. So you could arrange for an IP phone to be used as a web browser for those who don't use a PC, for instance. Or you might use them for applications on the shop floor, such as clocking in and out."
The reality is that if you stop thinking of the traditional phone as the only way to interact with your communications framework a host of possibilities open up. For example, you can consider a phone that you don't hold in your hand at all - you just type into it instead. Step forward the soft phone, software that sits on your laptop or desktop, can let you make and take calls like a non-virtual one, but can integrate into many other productivity and corporate applications.
"If you're out and about, are in a hotel with broadband capability, for £5 a night you can be on the company intranet and phone system checking messages, routing information you need to colleagues, and generally being highly effective," says Nelson.
This makes sense when you think about it, adds Paul Templeton, European vice-president of Enterprise Solutions at Nortel Networks, as "what differentiates [convergence] is the applications that you can get with it".
"The client - be that a screen, a PDA or a handset - is just what's visible; it's the convergence of media behind that that's exciting."
Given all this it's no wonder that "VoIP is going to change the way small businesses look at their communications," thinks Craig Rowland, managing director, business at BT Retail.
That's not to say there aren't caveats. "Convergence to the IP standard is an important and useful step, but it doesn't solve all our problems," says Mark Blowers, a senior analyst with UK research firm Butler Group. "At the moment we still have communications silos - cellular, wireless and office bandwidth is all different. We're still looking for the device that can seamlessly roam between those and switch you over to the one most appropriate for your need at any given time."
Quality of reception
If you think you can wait a bit longer for that sort of device, you can't as easily ignore the fact that the biggest historical objection to VoIP - service quality - still hasn't been quashed for voice over the internet.
Computer companies may seem happy to use soft phones to talk between staff but not so eager to make all their calls to their customers on them quite yet. Why? Voice over the internet is voice over a best endeavours network. For business-class quality you need quality of service (QoS) on your LAN and WAN, and a proper break-out from your IP telephony switch to the common telephone network, PSTN
"Quality of service (QoS) and resilience is best achieved by installing the right boxes on the network," says Nortel's Templeton.
The important fact is that there will be dodgy calls now and again - but as the market matures and the technology for running the system at the back end improves, the chances are those issues will diminish.
"If you're not at the forefront of technology adoption, don't go wholescale VoIP," says Marc Aafjes, a senior consultant at system integrator Capgemini's Telecom, Media and Entertainment arm. "But now is the time to start experimenting, giving IP communications capability to those who need it first."
"Experiment, but make sure you have the interoperability you need," adds Blowers.
Tell that boring phone on your desk its days may well be numbered.
Case study: Hydratight Sweeney
One UK company that's shown how a shift to convergence doesn't have to mean disruption or major kit change is light engineering company Hydratight Sweeney. In fact its Group IS Manager Andy Veale says that "once it's configured your new IP network looks and feels just like the old one - and even the phones, do too".
The company (www.hydratightsweeney.com) is an established player in hydraulic bolt tightening. Based in Walsall in the West Midlands, a key part of its business model is rapid opening or shutting as needed of small satellite offices. To both save costs on its international voice and data interchanges, and also to facilitate that satellite ability, the UK end of the company in mid 2003 bought a Succession IP system from Nortel Networks, involving a set of IP phones as well as IP-based PABX, installed by BT Convergent Solutions.
"The kit was all a bit bleeding edge when we started, but it's all settled down now," says Veale. "It's also true to say that we had some teething problems where users weren't sure what they could or couldn't do, but now everything's working very well."
A key to this success, he thinks, is that the company's taking it one step at a time. "We haven't given the users the handsets with all the bells and whistles yet - the first step was equivalent call functionality. But the point is that we have the foundation to roll that out as and when we need. Our plan is all about being very reactive, and VoIP gives you that."
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