Voice over IP has been around a long time, longer than we might think.The first experimental Network Voice Protocol was created as early as 1973 for ARPANET, a forerunner to the internet. The technology for transmitting voice conversations over the internet has been available to end users since at least the early 1980s.
However, it wasn’t until 1996, with a shrink-wrapped software product called Vocaltec Internet Phone Release 4, allowing VoIP-based calls with other Vocaltec users, that it became commercially available.
Early this century, VoIP was touted by vendors as the next big thing for toll-call savings, but now with “unified comunications” we see VoIP as the necessary platform to allow new, sought-after functionality.
TelstraClear has just rolled out its biggest VoIP implementation yet, citing the need for unified comunications as the business driver. The Bank of New Zealand project involves 5,000 users across 186 BNZ branches and six corporate sites around the country.
The roll-out combines a Genesys call centre and Witness recording solution and promises far more efficient handling of calls, greater flexibility for changing call flows across contact centres to branches and vice versa and IP communications.
With a centrally managed telephony system on one platform, it also reduces the complexity of administering changes to phones and email. Furthermore, extension mobility allows staff to log on to any one telephone within the bank and be recognised, enabling calls and messages to be directed to that phone.
TelstraClear says the real value of IP-based telephony is not the technology itself, but rather the productivity gains when you integrate business ICT, back office, reporting and network management tools.
“Delivery of unified communications tools to the ‘regular user’ working environment, such as corporate grade secure desktop text messaging, integrated desktop and high-definition, room-based video-conferencing, document collaboration, unified messaging and mobility are the key to attracting and retaining the next generation workforce,” says group manager of integrated accounts, George Serepisos.
“In addition, TelstraClear’s Systems Management Framework provides web-based centralised customer control of delivered TelstraClear services. The SMF brings together the management of multiple environments in a clear and ITIL-aligned service model, allowing for organised, service-focused management of these environments,” he says.
Nortel Asia enterprise solution marketing manager Mitch Radomir says VoIP is a foundation to unified communication and fixed mobile convergence.
“As a result, VoIP benefits will be greater than cost saving or efficiency improvements. VoIP’s real benefit is that it will enable the creation of an always-on communication and collaborative environment that will always improve overall business processes and improve employee productivity by enabling a click to engage with fellow co-workers,” says Radomir.
Other New Zealand-based suppliers concur.
Dave Mason, enterprise sales manager for systems integrator Agile, says that four to five years ago, VoIP was used as a cost-cutting measure to save on toll calls.
Now, unified communications is the driver for functionality such as combining email, telephony, text messaging and other services. The concept of presence, where the system can easily inform people, be they customers or co-workers, where certain people are, is another driver.
VoIP has also improved the sound quality of its calls in recent years, and the ability to allow remote working also improves the business continuity or disaster recovery capability of businesses.
Video-conferencing capabilities over the IP network is also driving demand, especially as the technology becomes more reliable and easier to use.
Zeacom, an Auckland-based supplier of call centre software, confirms such trends. Channel manager Zlatko Filipchich says presence is driving huge productivity gains.
“People’s expectations have increased. ‘When is this person going to be back?’ they can leave a message. A cellphone becomes an extension of your workstation,” he says.
Customers are taking on the presence function. Some 90% of Zeacom solutions have presence on their IP telephony solution.
Filipchich also sees video conferencing capabilities driving demand, but as IP is increasingly used by non-technical people, companies are having to make it easier to use. Companies are moving towards “smart” products using drag and drop facility for video conferencing or voicemail.
In addition, they are also seeking VoIP as part of an overall solution and taking on maintenance agreements to futureproof their systems.
Gen-i reports a New Zealand market in transition from legacy TDM and analogue networks.
“Many small-medium businesses are struggling on their own, to see the ROI to move to IP, while the corporate and enterprise segments with multiple networks, infrastructures, vendors and suppliers can see an immediate benefit in a number of areas,” says Steve McGinn, UC and IP telephony service line manager at Gen-i.
“This is the mean reason why Gen-i is taking the consultative approach. It will be through education of the market that it plans to ensure a smooth, cost-effective transition to IP.
McGinn reports firms seeking IP telephony to help staff be more productive, with the potential for home-working improving work-life balance. Working from home and video-conferencing helps meet sustainability goals as well. And as well as offering lower total cost of ownership, VoIP also promises business agility, in being able to scale up quickly.
McGinn calls on firms to look at their technical capabilities for VoIP (both LAN and WAN ready), saying Gen-i offers a network readiness assessment programme to help this — firms should look at their needs to avoid getting shoehorned into an inappropriate solution; and to look at the service and support suppliers offer.
Filipich warns all products look very slick and are well-presented, so IT managers need to assess what’s available.
“But look at the firepower behind it. Some suppliers change their offering each year and are not committed. Organisations need to look at the supplier, the distributor. Many suppliers are just clipping the ticket. Look at how well they will support the product,” he adds.
Dave Mason of Agile warns quality of service is often an issue so would-be users need to check that the network they will use is of voice quality.
IT managers should also seek customer references and assess the track record of suppliers.
“It’s not the initial implementation but continuing service. Look at SLAs around maintenance. VoIP is an applications network that needs continuing monitoring and servicing,” he adds.
Nortel calls for organisations to understand what business processes will benefit from VoIP and unified communications. “Understand how people work, how they will work in the future and what applications they will need to collaborate within an enterprise or across enterprises. Understanding this will dictate how VoIP needs to be deployed and what hooks and interworking features will be needed or need to be planned for,” says Radomir.
TelstraClear warns VoIP and unified communications are complex technologies, which will continue to grow in complexity as demands increase. But this does not necessarily mean they need to be complex to run and operate.
“Strict IT policy, governance and a clear understanding of the solution and project deliverables is essential if benefits are to be fully realised,” Serepisos adds.
Shift prompts PF Olsen to reap VoIP benefits
When Rotorua-based forestry consultancy PF Olsen moved to new offices, it realised its IT infrastructure, including its telephony systems, needed to be brought up-to-date.
The company had 14 satellite offices across New Zealand and one in Melbourne, each using separate analogue PBX phone systems, some nearing end of life. For IT manager Grant Alexander, this meant either avoiding upgrade costs by keeping the existing system, but facing inflexibility and high maintenance costs.
Alternatively, he could converge voice communication with IT, using IP telephony to manage future business needs.
Alexander was also keen to reduce cabling complexity and make it simpler to handle changes, like adding a new user to the system without needing a technician. He also wanted smarts like intelligent routing, which allows a “cellular frontage” on the system.
Thus, when someone rings another person in the company using their cellphone, this is a free call. Likewise, someone calling in can be directed to their cellphone extension.
Alexander says organisations need to be aware of two levels of IP telephony — low-end solutions like Skype that perforate your firewall, or managed systems like Telstra’s Managed Voice, which manage all the issues around security, manageability and scalability.
PF Olsen chose TelstraClear’s Managed Voice Solution, which includes Avaya’s IP500 Office System — essentially a small network-ready appliance-management software called Phone Manager Pro, IP handsets, and a service package that manages scoping, installation, training and support, and fault management.
IP-based, the system sits in a networked environment and uses standards-based telephony with firewall-protected internet and high speed dial-up access.
Management software runs IP handsets and soft consoles, or computer-based phones, and provides administrators with software-driven features to architect voice flow — such as after-hours call handling — and manage extensions and settings, including speed-dial options, calling information and message alerts.
At present, the other PF Olsen branches don’t have dedicated IP servers yet, but they can now be managed centrally from Rotorua using Skype.
Alexander says the implementation, late in 2007, went smoothly as it was a greenfield site. Having one supplier also made things easier.
He reports some initial ‘quality issues’ but the main thing is users not using all their capabilities.
“There’s a lot of untapped features. The users haven’t latched on to things. To them, it’s just a device to make phone calls. The big thing is to get them to use the productivity tools,” he says.
Yet, he says, such functions as transferring calls to a mobile, or sending all voicemails into one inbox, including the directories in the system, are easy to use.
Now, PF Olsen plans to extend the IP system to Nelson, which will be managed from Rotorua.
Hastings-based chartered accountants Coffey Davidson adopted VoIP when it too moved into new offices. It looked at four to six options before settling on NEC hardware and a Zeacom application.
IT principal Dean Tiffen says the system is a hybrid, using traditional telephony for internal calls and IP for external calls. The cost of toll calls was not the business driver, but rather delivering IP-type functionality to telephones.
Coffey Davidson sought new functionality around unified communications. It wanted presence management and Zeacom would allow that, via Outlook, which is on everyone’s desktop, including those remote workers based at home.
The company carried out a pre-implementation process, looking at its own business processes and software functionality, finding Zeacom the best fit. NEC’s voice solution was also user friendly and site visits of existing users followed.
Tiffen says the main challenge was bringing Telecom into the equation. Telephone numbers had to be changed and there were issues in working out who was at fault when problems arose.
“We were happy with the technical delivery. The real frustrations were with the integration with Telecom. We would have benefited from having someone on the Telecom side [working with us on the project],” he explains.
Looking back, Tiffen says IT bosses need a real understanding of the delivery and quality assurance from suppliers. Transparency is needed too, so it is clear where and with who the problem lies. Nonetheless, he expects a payback within two years.