Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) — the technology that allows voice and data traffic to be carried over the internet — has so far mainly been associated with making free calls to Australia via Skype or some other service, but increasingly more private and public sector organisations are now taking a hard look at the technology to see how they might apply it.
Cork City Council has gone a step further, having recently completed a VoIP deployment within its library network in the city.
The central and five-branch libraries are well used, loaning out nearly one million books a year. The services include a reference library, a children’s library, a music library and public internet access. However, the wide range of services and their popularity were placing ever-greater demands on library staff — as well as pressure on the central library’s existing telephone switch, as Liam Lombard, executive technician in the council’s plant and machinery section, explains.
“A new PABX system was required in the central library because the existing PABX was 15 years old and spares were becoming difficult to obtain,” he says. “The need to replace the PABX presented the opportunity to make use of existing spare capacity in the information systems network [using] a VoIP-based voice communications system.”
Whereas the old network was based on analogue leased lines that could not offer any of the functionality of modern digital communications and had no facility to offer internet access, the new network can be used for both voice and data traffic, allowing telephone calls to be carried on the same network that provides the libraries with internet access.
Employees in the libraries now appear to each other as if they are on the same exchange and they can divert or transfer calls between each other with ease. They also have access to a full range of digital telephone services including voice mail and teleconferencing.
The general public will also benefit. “We will be able to implement an auto-attendant service so people can dial a single number and have a menu of options from which they can select whatever service they need,” says Lombard. This will make it easier for members of the public to get information about services offered by the various libraries and where they may be accessed.
The VoIP system allows these services to be implemented at a much lower cost than using alternative technologies, according to John McCabe, managing director of Damovo Ireland, which installed the technology. “Traditionally, one would have to put a small exchange in each library to enable such services. With our solution you just need a single PBX in a central location and an inexpensive router in each library, which is a much more cost-effective way of achieving this level of service.”
The system consists of an Ericsson MD110 Convergence Communication System housed in the main library. In each of the other libraries there is a single router and an IP phone for each staff member.
According to Lombard, the VoIP hardware cost approximately 20pc more than if the council had simply decided simply to replace its old PBX. However, running costs are lower. There are rental savings because leased lines are no longer needed and call charges are lower because the new system is connected to the main city hall office switchboard and thus calls between the libraries and the local authority head office are rated as internal rather than local calls. “Also, there will be some savings in administration costs if staff move about within the library service because it will only be necessary to change the IT outlet rather than both the IT and telephone outlet,” says Lombard.
While describing the new VoIP system as very successful, Lombard notes it is more sophisticated than traditional phone systems and, therefore, more specialist in-house skills are needed in the event of failure. “When something goes wrong with VoIP, it’s more complicated to fix so you need someone who understands both sides — voice and data.”
McCabe describes VoIP as “not yet mainstream but getting there” and predicts plenty more VoIP deployments in the next 12 months or so.
Pictured are Liam Lombard of Cork City Council (left) and John McCabe of Damovo
By Brian Skelly