24 May VoIP experts assess early implementations
MADISON – Phone calls over the Internet are no longer a pipe dream. That was the message of Accelerate Madison’s May 20 presentation, a panel discussion of Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.
VoIP’s ability to carry phone conversations over existing data networks has stirred excitement over the technology. Speaker Jerry Rocco, an IP telephony specialist with Cisco Systems, described an office in which his phone is connected not to a phone jack but to an Ethernet port, and his computer is plugged into the company’s network and linked to the Internet through his phone. That was just the beginning.
“A lot of features exist in the new system that we just don’t have in our old PBX,” said Mark Spindt, director of applications engineering for Norlight. “We plan to use almost everything the system has to offer.”
With phones operating over existing data networks, the theory goes, companies can cut costs because they no longer need a separate phone system. To call outside numbers, the network is plugged into a switch connected to the public phone network. But inside the company, everything works over the local or wide-area network.
That could lead to savings, especially on conference calls. David Skrede, IT manager for Madison-based Third Wave Technologies, said he sees conference calls reduced in cost by approximately 70 percent by using internal LAN connections when possible.
Putting everything on one network could please IT department, too. Panelist Dick Grasmick, the City of Madison’s IT director, said he has a staff of 36 supporting 3,000 people in different departments, each with their own phone systems. He is working to smooth out the situation by replacing the patchwork of phone systems with a consistent use of VoIP, which could utilize the city’s existing data networks.
Rocco pointed out advantages beyond saving costs on the network. Voice and data could be integrated even further, he said, by allowing voice messages to be handled in an e-mail client. Technical or customer support centers could also be designed, Rocco said, to automatically detect a drop in call volume and start having staff handle e-mails instead.
But not everyone is rushing to adopt the new technology. Paul Meier, vice president of IT for CUNA Mutual Group, said he is having trouble finding solid business reasons to replace existing phones entirely with VoIP.
He said implementation falls into two parts: the network infrastructure, which must be secure and provide reliable quality of service, and the phone equipment itself. CUNA is using VoIP instead of the public phone service for some calls, he said, such as those between the group’s Canada and U.S. offices. That allows it to take advantage of one of VoIP’s main benefits, avoiding charges for long-distance and international calls. But Meier cannot justify replacing all of CUNA’s phones — yet.
Another potential problem is electricity, since computer networks, unlike phones, go down during power outages — not to mention virus or worm infestations or denial-of-service attacks. Rocco said VoIP networks just need top-notch intrusion detection, firewalls and packet-sniffing software installed. And as for power outages, Cisco provides routers with inline power supplies.
Working over the sometimes unpredictable public Internet has ups as well as downs. Since IP is “ubiquitous,” Rocco said, VoIP phones can follow their owners in a way even cell phones cannot. These phones register themselves once they connect to an IP network, so that the same number can be directed to different locations automatically. VoIP turns the relationship between phones and the Internet on its head. Before broadband, phone lines were the access points to the Internet. Now, any Internet access point can serve as a phone jack, assuming you have a VoIP phone.
Cisco has found, though, that people have come to expect certain things from phones. Rocco said the company tried replacing the standard dial tone, a wav file played when the phone is picked up, with a voice saying “How can I help you?” He said test users were confused and some panicked, wondering if someone was on the line. In the end, Cisco went back to playing the dial-tone wav, and nothing more. The clarity of digital transmission was also found to be a bit too perfect.
“We actually had to have Cisco increase the amount of static on the line,” Skrede said.
View a webcast of the panel discussion at webcast
Jason Stitt is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at email@example.com.