Voice-over IP Part 3: Managing the move

22 Apr 2004

Internet protocol (IP) based telephony is gaining traction because unlike proprietary private branch exchange (PBX) organisations can take over much of the management of their own phone systems. Rather than having to rely on the company that provided their PBX system to handle the set up of new phones, moving of staff and other common tasks, all of this can be handled internally using tools that are familiar to IT staff.

While IP is the open standard used to transport voice, another standard — Session Initiation Protocol — governs how the phones interoperate, handling such things as call set-up, routing, authentication and other features. While the growing adoption of standards may be good news for customers it does present a challenge for equipment manufacturers. If all the systems offer similar features the risk is customers will make a decision purely based on price.

Cisco’s approach is to have an ecosystem of third-party software vendors developing software for its platform, through its AVIDD program. This enabled it to provide the smart applications for the recently opened Crowne Plaza Dublin Airport hotel, which has one of the most sophisticated IP infrastructures in Ireland with everything from housekeeping to mini-bar management being channelled over a converged network.

According to Darren Sullivan, sales director of PlanNet 21, the Cisco Gold Partner that implemented the IP network at the hotel, the decision to employ a converged network was based on the applications available rather than just the potential saving on telephone costs. “It was the right time because a lot of applications have been developed to tie into a standards-based infrastructure — all the ducks were lined up for the Crowne Plaza,” explains Sullivan.

“The applications were ready and there’s no comparison with traditional PBX. Phones have been in declining usage in hotels for the past four or five years since the advent of mobiles. By making the phone much more than a phone they are giving extra value to the customer.” In addition to having an Ethernet connection for guests accessing the internet on their own laptop, the phones feature a large LCD screen to act as a guest services directory with dynamically changing content.

Despite having a long history of providing PBX systems, Nortel Networks is aware that offering IP telephony as a straight swap for traditional phone systems is likely to gain limited traction with users. “IP telephony is not a straight replacement for desktop telephony,” says Barry Dillon, business manager with Nortel. “There are other implications for the plumbing on your local area network. The costs of providing the necessary quality on the network can outweigh the benefits. What it’s really about is new applications and new ways of working, particularly the multimedia capability.”

Nortel’s flagship product in this space is the Multimedia Communications Server (MCS) 5100 — a collaboration tool that’s an overlay on an IP telephony set-up that provides services such as secure instant messaging, desktop videoconferencing and file sharing. “I can set up buddy lists so I can see exactly where my sales team is and what it is doing,” explains Dillon. “Traditionally I might have to make three or four calls to get an answer to a question because people might be out of the office. With instant messaging I can see who is available and get an answer straight away.”

While traditional PBX players such as Nortel and Siemens are moving to IP, they have the advantage of being able to offer hybrid solutions that allow customers to ease their transition to a totally IP network. That’s not to say that IP telephony will totally replace PBX any time soon and system integrators with a healthy business servicing the older technology aren’t jumping ship. “I was talking to one of the biggest PBX system integrators in Ireland recently and it said it will never sell IP telephony systems,” reveals Mike Galvin, country manager with Cisco. “It said why would it when it can charge €250 for plugging a phone into a new port.”

Not surprisingly the telcos aren’t keen to see their role lessened in the new IP-centric world and are busy getting ready to roll out hosted IP telephony services that customers will rent for a monthly fee. “Service providers are looking for PBX functionality on their network,” says Sean Loughman, head of innovation at Eircom. “Customers will buy a service from a service provider and all they will have in their premises are the IP phones. They’ll pay a monthly fee and be able to configure the service through a web browser. There’s a suite of IP applications available for corporations and voice is just one.”

Loughman mentions videoconferencing, advanced messaging services and integration with existing enterprise applications such as databases as applications that service providers such as Eircom could soon be offering.

Emer Kennedy, global products manager with Esat BT, also sees that telcos’ traditional business model will be changed by IP. “Traditionally we would have made money on providing access,” she says. “DSL and wireless technology is replacing that and margins have been tightened.” Kennedy believes that telcos will have to become a one-stop shop for customers’ voice and data needs — providing services on both the local and wide area networks and giving the customer the convenience of a single bill.

By John Collins