03 May Calling all computers: VoIP goes mainstream
Voice traffic leaps to the Internet and phones become computer devices
Chances are you have already received phone calls that spent part of their time on the Internet, thanks to a technology that has finally crossed into the mainstream.
And if your company isn’t already making use of the Internet to carry phone calls, it will probably consider doing so sooner rather than later. The potential savings and efficiencies are just too great to ignore.
Whether you say it in initials, “V-O-I-P,” say the whole thing, “voice over Internet Protocol,” shorten it to “voice over IP,” or pronounce it as an acronym, “Voip,” putting telephone voice traffic onto the same cables and networks that have been carrying computer and Internet data all these years is the next big thing in technology.
Huge players such as AT&T, Cisco Systems, and Time Warner are rolling out VoIP service, and Baby Bells such as Verizon Communications, SBC Communications, and Qwest Communications International are on the bandwagon as well, or should we say the “broadband wagon.”
High-speed broadband access to the Internet is crucial to carrying voice traffic, which arrives in the form of the unique data packets that the Internet traffics in, hence the name “Internet protocol.” Unlike regular phone service that requires an open line in both directions, voice traffic over the Internet is sent streaming along like everything else and reassembled in nanoseconds on the other end.
Not only do phone calls become as cheap to transmit as e-mails, but cable companies and other newcomers can also get into the telecommunications game without having to pay access charges to the established phone companies.
First cut your wiring
For a business, the first level of savings starts with the wiring – which is cut in half.
“You don’t need a separate wire for your phone,” says Mike Ulicki, VP and chief technology officer for Brookfield-based networking company Norlight.
“You can run both voice and data over the same Ethernet connection. Phones coming out now have Ethernet switches built into them, so you plug your phone into the Ethernet jack in the wall, and plug your phone into your computer and basically save 50% on your infrastructure wiring.”
These savings are especially attractive for companies moving into new space, since they can eliminate half the cable-pulling and switching equipment.
That is what the law firm of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C. experienced when moving into new space in Milwaukee in November.
“In the past, each office would have at least two phone wires, or even four wires, because you wanted to give yourself some flexibility in the future,” says Al Ciochon, the firm’s director of information technology. “What you find in a voice-over-IP situation is you completely eliminate those wires, which could save considerable amounts of money.”
He estimates each wire that needs to be pulled could cost $200 in labor, so with 100 phone wirings eliminated, that would total $20,000 in savings.
“It really simplifies the administration from a networking side in just the complexity of the wires you’re dealing with,” he says.“And some of the most expensive devices you pay for [in a computer network] are your hubs and routers and switches,” he adds.
By eliminating a separate system of phone wires, you make double use of your computer networking gear. Not only that, but all moves and changes of extensions and service within the organization are now handled by software on the computer system, not by having to change wiring connections or reprogram the PBX.
Next, cut your charges
Eliminating half the wiring is fine, but how about if your phone bill shrank as well?
Because long distance charges have come down considerably for regular phone service, VoIP may not make sense for companies that don’t make a lot of long-distance calls. But using VoIP can be a cost-effective way to connect an overseas call center to North America, for instance.
And for a company with several locations, using VoIP can totally eliminate charges for calls within its own organization.
A manufacturer of cabling headquartered in Milwaukee, HellermannTyton has a distribution center in the Chicago area and a manufacturing center in Florida, plus sales offices in Canada and Mexico. All are connected by dedicated data lines.
“By working with AT&T we were able to use one of our data lines, one of our T1 lines, to send our long-distance voice traffic,” says Chris Cantwell, e-business manager at HellermannTyton.
“We are saving about $1,000 a month now in just our [telephone] line costs.”
The same technology that allows leveraging existing data networks to also carry voice traffic also results in other efficiencies. Whyte Hirschboeck’s Ciochon points out that in the past, you would have to dedicate some of your T1 channels for voice and some for data.
“Now with voice over IP, the routers are smart enough that when it is a voice packet, they use quality of service to prioritize the voice traffic ahead of data traffic. But if there’s no voice traffic, they’ll use the entire T1, 1.5 megabytes, for data throughput — a much greater usage of your existing infrastructure.”
Finally, integrate your data
Cutting wiring and phone costs are fine, but what really gets experts excited about voice-over-Internet technology is the possibility of unifying or integrating all sorts of functions that are now separate, such as e-mail, voice-mail, and databases.
Norlight’s Ulicki says, “With VoIP, you can dial directly from your computer database of contact information. You can also have unified messaging, one box that everything comes into, faxes, e-mails, voice-mails. You can listen to your e-mails on your phone if you want, like when you’re on the road. The system can read you the e-mail and send what you say.
“This is going to be one of the biggest revolutions in a long time. I don’t think people have realized the impact integrated telephony is going to have on their lives in terms of communications.”
As a Madison-based Internet provider and data center manager for e-commerce companies such as Lands’ End, Berbee Information Networks Corp. has been using VoIP internally for two years and now offers it to its clients.
“The functionality that VoIP brings over traditional phones systems is driven by the fact that your telephone becomes a computer device,” says Paul Shain, president and COO of Berbee.
“It’s on the network, therefore you can interface and interact with other systems on the network, such as unified messaging. The converged voice and data networks makes technological sense and makes business sense.”
Because an employee can connect to the company’s voice and data system from any high-speed Internet connection, Shain sees VoIP as being very attractive to companies with a lot of mobile workers, who can appear as if they are at the office no matter where they are actually located.
“Voice over IP is a technology that seems to be ready for the time,” says Shain. “It’s providing a lot of return for our customers from a financial perspective as well as from a productivity perspective.
“My sense is that as people look for more and more unique applications to run over their phone system, bringing data from other computer systems, you’ll start to see creative applications that allow you to get even more value from the phone system.”
One early example he cites is Informacast, a paging and notification system for building evacuation that Berbee originally wrote for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“It allows you to use VoIP to either send a text or voice message simultaneously to tens of thousands of phones and effectively turn your phone system into [the equivalent of] an overhead paging system,” Shain says. “We have sold it all over the country and the world.”
Berbee’s client Ciochon agrees. “The thing that’s so important for voice over IP is the integration into the PC world. You can now click on a phone number displayed on your PC screen and your phone starts dialing it. This integration has always been difficult because the systems [phone and computer software] had been very different. Voice over IP puts them on common platforms.”
“We purchased the Cisco AVVID VoIP system, and the database that runs it is Microsoft SQL, the same that I run for all our business applications. Your phone is truly acting as another computer device, such as for data entry, and my database administrator is also able to now manage the database for the telephone system. In the past that was very proprietary and there would be a lot of costs associated with that application and support.”
He also sees the “virtual office” feature as very important. “You’re able to work anytime, any place on any device [connected to the Internet] so you can be just as efficient from home as from the office. The cost-savings are tremendous because if you’re anywhere over the Internet you’re able to get your calls.
“The technology makes sense, I think. A lot of things are going over the Internet, and there’s a lot of cost savings associated with the medium of exchange, so I think it only makes sense to put voice traffic there, too.”
Paul Zukowski is editor of Corporate Report Wisconsin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story has been syndicated with permission of the publication.