Sprint may still be a phone company, but you won't see many desk phones in house these days. In fact, Sprint's IT group has spent the last few years eliminating its PBX systems in favor of headsets plugged into laptops.
The number 3 wireless carrier in the U.S., based in Overland Park, Kan., has been dabbling with UC (Unified Communications) since 2007, when it implemented Microsoft's OCS (Office Communications Server) for basic features such as VoIP (Voice-over Internet Protocol) and instant messaging.
In the past year, Sprint has transitioned to Lync, Microsoft's rebranded version of OCS. The general feature set of corporate IM, audio/video conferencing and VoIP is mostly the same between Lync and OCS. However, Lync does include Live Meeting Web conferencing (not part of OCS) as well as new features such as e911, which indicates the location of a person making an emergency call, and Skill Search, which lets you find people with specific expertise.
The lure of Lync for Sprint and other businesses is that it is capable of augmenting or replacing traditional PBX and conferencing systems, thereby saving companies money on hardware, licensing costs and, in Sprint's case, real estate, says Joe Hamblin, Sprint's Unified Communications and Collaboration Manager.
"Freeing users from their physical phones allowed Sprint to save money by shutting down offices in some of their smaller locations," says Hamblin. "We had some big offices that were only housing 30 people. We could shut that down and save money on rent, power and electricity."
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As a result, more Sprint employees were freed from office desks and can work remotely.
Sprint has a medley of Office and Exchange 2007 and 2010 installments, but nearly all its users have Lync capabilities for IM, online meetings and presence.
"We have 40,000 employees using Lync," says Hamblin. "Most of them are 'knowledge workers' who use Lync for all communications and collaboration from anywhere they choose to work. Executives still have PBX phones and Lync, but more and more are using Lync."
The Road to Lync
Sprint is a traditional Microsoft shop, but the road to OCS, and then Lync, was not short. Back in 2005, Sprint was using Nortel PBX systems, but was eager to move to a UC platform.
But the implementation of OCS, and the eventually Lync, came after five failed funding requests to displace its existing PBX infrastructure with VoIP. All the VoIP market leaders that Sprint evaluated in 2006/2007 (Hamblin would not mention names) had the same problems: The ROI payback time period was five years; a support team was required to operate a siloed voice infrastructure; and the products failed to integrate all the features Sprint wanted such as voice, video, email, Web conferencing and document-sharing.
One of Sprint's Exchange managers at the time was in touch with Microsoft about its UC offerings, which led to Sprint using OCS R1 in 2007, and "we went from there," says Hamblin.
"At the end of the day, we owned the Microsoft infrastructure already, and the users were comfortable with it. This made it easier to enable the new UC capabilities and educate employees on how to use them."
A Compelling Case for Cost Savings
There's no question that voice and video eat up network bandwidth, but those costs are offset in areas where switching to a UC platform has saved Sprint mega dollars.
"IT is overhead. We don't directly generate revenue for the company," says Hamblin. "So we get money either when we're broke or when we provide a compelling case for cost-savings, and Lync provided a compelling case for the business."
Hamblin breaks down the UC cost savings:
- Moving from TDM (Time-Division Multiplexing) circuits to a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) architecture to enable VoIP for 450 Sprint sites: $6.7 million in savings.
- Eliminating bi-annual PBX upgrade costs: $2.5 million in savings.
- Web conferencing costs: Moved from a third-party conferencing provider to Lync Live Meeting: $300,000 a month.
- "Green" savings from eliminating the need to power and cool legacy PBX equipment: $700,000 annually.
- Real estate savings from the reduction in rented square footage (1.5 million square feet and counting): $30 million annually.
The UC Challenges and Benefits
The biggest challenge when transitioning to a UC platform like Lync is one of culture, says Hamblin.
"The technology works; culture is the real challenge," he says. "Some users just resist change and others embrace it. So you have to do some internal marketing to figure out user preferences."
As far as IT support for a UC platform, the weakest link, says Hamblin, is usually an employee's home Wi-Fi set up, such as a DSL connection that doesn't have the latency to support the video often needed in Lync.
Sprint employees are currently using all features of Lync, says Hamblin, but they seem to be getting the most value out of Live Meeting, which was not rolled into OCS, to set up conference calls using voice, presence and IM from anywhere quickly and easily.
"It just enables mobility. Work is something you do, not somewhere you go, and UC platforms like Lync brings that idea to life."
Is Sprint considering Microsoft's Office 365 cloud service for access to the online version of Lync, he said:
"Sprint has very favorable contract terms with Microsoft and some integrated solutions that are easier to support internally. So moving to the cloud at this point does not make financial sense."
But, Hamblin adds, "Sprint, like any company, needs to drive down expenses so we will evaluate the cloud and plan to use cloud technologies where they make sense."
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at email@example.com