LAS VEGAS -- IP telephony implementations may often prove cheaper than traditional telephone systems, but other benefits, like better features and improvements in worker productivity, truly make the technology worthwhile.
During a panel discussion Thursday at Comdex Las Vegas 2003, that theme surfaced time and again, as a handful of IT professionals shared their IP telephony experiences.
Panelist Thomas Dunkerly, IT communications manager with the Seattle Times Co., called IP telephony "one of the greatest things that's come around in the telecommunications industry in years."
In the news business, there's no room for downtime, and Dunkerly said that was his main consideration when he began evaluating new phone systems a few years ago.
"Our executives made it very clear that whatever system we put in had to be 100% reliable," Dunkerly said.
Dunkerly's team went ahead with a limited Avaya IP telephony implementation in 2001, installing it alongside the company's existing phone switch. However, during a routine asset relocation, workers dropped and broke the old phone switch while carrying it to a new location.
The accident forced Dunkerly to hurriedly expand a 30-phone IP telephony test project into a mission-critical system supporting hundreds of employees. The transition was made in just four hours.
Though he expected to receive dozens of technical-support calls when workers reported the next morning and found new IP phones on their desks, the system worked perfectly, with no voice quality problems, he said. Employees easily got the hang of their new phones.
"When an end user came to me and said, 'We love the new phones,' that sold me" on IP telephony, he said.
In fact, Dunkerly said, that success helped spur a new test project, in which reporters are using IP-based wireless phones. So far, the month-old initiative has gone flawlessly.
"If a reporter hasn't broken a phone in a month, then they're darned rugged," Dunkerly said.
Panelist Mike Shisko, director of IT with Dallas-based Hitachi Consulting Corp., said that his organization implemented IP telephony when the company was founded three years ago. Since that time, the company's employee base has doubled -- there are now more than 800 workers. Still, Hitachi Consulting's four-person IT staff is able to manage the system.
Charged with supporting 16 offices in 12 states, Shisko said, his group didn't originally consider VoIP. But the company soon found that VoIP was the best option for affordably providing a single, redundant, easy-to-use phone system to a distributed work force.
"One of the advantages the IP [telephony] world gives is that a lot of applications are being built to tie voice and data together," Shisko said. He noted that the integration of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and Media Gateway Control Protocol (MGCP) makes it possible to manage phone service like an application.
Shisko added that his IP telephony system enables him to get phone service up and running in a new office in less than two hours, plus manage service configuration changes for the entire company from a single console.
Despite his success, he warned that lowering users' expectations can be difficult. "People don't expect that when the network is slow, that the phone isn't going to work. It's a two-edged sword," Shisko said.
Panelist Dave Stever, manager of communication technology services for PPL Corp. in Allentown, Pa., said his company slowly began implementing IP telephony on its 13,000-end-point network in 2001. After realizing the integration benefits of VoIP, such as advanced phone features, unified messaging and a "follow-me" service, which lets a user log into any phone on the network and have his calls forwarded to it, the company began a full-scale deployment earlier this year.
During the pilot, Stever said, it became clear that the company's separate voice and data groups needed to merge to support the new system. "It was a struggle to get there," he said, but combining the groups before the major rollout was the right move. When the project is completed in 2004, he said, PPL will start realizing an annual cost savings in excess of $1 million.
For panelist Steve Wandler, founder and president of YourOnlineTechnician.com in Kelowna, British Columbia, IP telephony was the answer to an antiquated phone system. He said customers were often disconnected when they tried to call the company, and since its purpose is to provide PC tech support over the phone, it was crucial that the company have a reliable system.
Because it has an almost entirely distributed work force, Wandler said, his firm chose a system that enabled employees to receive and transfer customer calls from their homes using IP phones, just as if they were working together in a single office.
"We didn't want to make it look like we were using Internet phones, but we still wanted to transfer a call from Vancouver to New York seamlessly," Wandler said.
Even though the system only saved the company about $10,500 per year in telephony costs, he said, it's not only been reliable -- it's also ensured that the firm can continue to benefit from the cost savings of a reliable, distributed work force.
Attendee Alvin Pitmon, a systems technician for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., said he was impressed by the panelists' success with IP telephony, as well as its advanced capabilities.
Though his company isn't seriously considering an implementation of its own just yet, Pitmon said, his workers could benefit from increased mobile productivity. That's especially true for reporters, who often work outside the office.
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