Not long ago, hotel telephone bills accounted for a large chunk of the expense claims of business travellers. Today, however, the big item is not hotel calls but mobile calls.
For businesses that despair of ever being able to bring this cost element under control, IP telephony (IPT) is, on paper at least, a technology that should be able to help. As the name suggests, IPT involves routing voice calls over the internet, rather than normal telephone networks. Using IPT-enabled laptops, executives can access corporate information on the move and ring anyone they want to using a ‘soft phone’ laptop application and USB headset. The technology also dramatically cuts mobile bills, as business travellers are no longer using their mobile phones to anything like the same extent.
At a seminar in Dublin’s Clontarf Castle last month, Nortel Networks outlined the benefits of IPT for remote workers and demonstrated its own range of products in this area, which range from converged PBXes (private branch exchanges) to soft phones. According to Barry Dillon, business manager, enterprise sales at Nortel, the good attendance at the event and the high level of interest shows that customers are beginning to understand what the technology can offer. “There has been an awful lot of interest in these solutions and customers are beginning to roll them out for the right reasons. The important thing, however, is to make sure that the business case stands up and to maximise any investments that have been made previously,” he says, referring to the industry’s early (and misplaced) vision for IPT as a substitute for physical phone systems.
This vision may not have transpired but the technology is no less valuable for that, he argues. “We don’t see it as a replacement for a handset on somebody’s desk. It provides the applications for new ways of working to reduce overall cost of ownership and achieve cost efficiency,” Dillon says.
That is not to say that there aren’t still significant concerns surrounding IPT, as equipment vendors themselves regularly acknowledge. For example, a senior executive from a US manufacturer, Enterasys Networks, visiting Dublin some months back, said that the market for IPT systems was growing only slowly and that network security, interoperability, the management of converged network environments and a perceived lack of return on investment were key obstacles to a mainstream rollout of the technology. Dillon argues, however, that the technology is effective so long as it sits on the right LAN (local area network) infrastructure. “The technology does work but it’s a bit like putting a very expensive boiler in your house and then not putting in the pipes to go with it. You have to have the plumbing right from end to end, so you’ve got to have the LAN infrastructure to support IP telephony.
“There are a lot of considerations to be taken into account when you are going down the IP telephony route — how you’re going to roll it out, how you’re going to ensure a good quality of service and so on,” he adds.
So how does IP telephony actually work? To remote workers, connecting to their corporate network via an IPT system is not much different to traditional access methods, except the laborious dialling up step is not required.
The Nortel system works much like any other. The first thing is to establish a connection. This can be done wirelessly if the employee has a wireless LAN card in his or her laptop or by plugging into an Ethernet port in a location such as a hotel room, sister office or customer premises (most laptops come equipped with Ethernet cards now).
The next step is to launch Contivity IPSec, a piece of software that establishes a secure VPN ‘tunnel’ from the employee’s laptop back to the corporate network. Clicking on another application, CallPilot, connects the laptop to the CallPilot server back at head office, letting the remote worker receive emails, faxes and voicemails.
Finally, if the user wishes to make phone calls, he or she can launch a ‘soft phone’ application, which establishes a connection between the phone and the company’s telephone switch (PBX).
“With our soft phone [the i2050] the caller can do everything he or she can with a normal digital handset — call conference, call transfer, call host, message waiting and so on,” explains Dillon. What’s more, once the connection is established, any calls made to the remote worker’s direct dial number are automatically routed to his or her laptop and can be picked up in the normal way. The user can also change the configuration of the soft phone and personalise it with speed dials and other features.
Dillon claims that “hundreds, if not thousands” of i2050 soft phones have been sold since the product was introduced 18 months ago and adds that Nortel uses IPT extensively within its own business — with impressive results. “We did some calculations recently that showed that we were able to reduce mobile phone use by up to 40pc or more than 100 per month on each of our mobile phones,” he says. According to Dillon, an IPT system including LAN infrastructure would cost approximately 400-500 per person, meaning that a company could recoup its investment within four to five months.
Nortel has produced a white paper that documents the savings that can be made. The company claims that using its converged One Network system, a customer with a 100-user system can make annual savings of up to €250,000 compared with using traditional remote access methods.
Persuading organisations to adopt IP telephony technology has been an uphill struggle but the message of lower costs and greater mobility may, it seems, finally be getting through.
By Brian Skelly
Pictured: Barry Dillon, business manager, enterprise sales, Nortel Networks