The VoIP revolution that never happened

By GovTechReview Staff
Thursday, 28 April, 2011

It may have been hailed as a transformative communications technology a decade ago, but the changes wrought by voice over IP (VoIP) have been far more measured as one government organisation after another works through its complex realities.

Well-intentioned agencies have found themselves stuck in far less romantic implementations where aging networks and archaic PABX systems have made the migration to VoIP an exercise in desk-by-desk upgrades, network testing, equipment replacement, capacity planning and more. That’s a far cry from vendors that have long barked enthusiastically about the potential benefits of IP-based technologies like unified communications (UC) and IP call centres.

That does not, however, mean VoIP isn’t changing things; look no further than the Northern Territory government, which in 2005 embarked on a VoIP migration of its NEC PABX environment under a five-year managed service contract with Telstra.

During the course of that contract, the organisations completed a major overhaul of the government’s back-end networking environment – installing new IP PABXes at around 70 trunking sites; increasing capacity to the approximately 500 remote sites with voice services; consolidating and eliminating costly legacy ISDN lines; upgrading internal networking; and extending the government’s five-digit internal dialling system across the length and breadth of the Territory.

Around 7000 legacy handsets were replaced with VoIP-capable NEC equivalents, minimising the transition for users that didn’t have to get used to a new look and feel. But there’s no rush to update the other 10,000 endpoints on the network, says Garry Haigh, Senior Director of ICT services within the government’s Shared Services organisation. “The decision was made, based on economies of scale and functionality, to upgrade our existing network to VoIP functionality,” Haigh explains.

“Where the existing infrastructure could be easily upgraded, we’ve done that. But the approach also maintained the investment in our existing environment; the cost on our ROI to take everything, and completely replace it with VoIP infrastructure, was quite a lot more. There was no need to spend more money on the handsets when the existing ones were doing fine. All the functionality was maintained, and there little or no disruption to the user.” Since the Telstra contract lapsed last year, the government has picked up the mantle, working with NEC to roll out a further 4000 handsets this year and plans 6000 more rollout at some point in the future. Sometime after that milestone is reached, and only then, will the department start exploring the other things it can do with an all-IP infrastructure.

Marketing, meet reality

Such measured and deliberate implementations are in direct opposition to the initial enthusiasm of VoIP vendors, who saw the shift to IP as a way of justifying massive desktop-phone overhauls in which existing units would be replaced with screen-bearing, Web application-driven smart terminals that put staff directories, instant presence information, videoconferencing and other applications at users’ fingertips.

It was a noble enough idea, but faced a fundamental contradiction: for a technology like VoIP in which customer conversations inevitably centred around cost savings, it was contradictory to consider the additional capital cost involved in rolling out the new devices. And it was only with a broad rollout that their capabilities became valuable.

Furthermore, the initial novelty of the screenphone idea quickly gave way to the inexorable pace of technological progress. The transformational growth in smartphone capabilities in recent years, for example, rapidly refocused the industry’s attention around application development, while the growth of desktop Web applications meant users were managing their everyday workflows through desktop browsers and mobile phones rather than souped-up IP phones.

Although novelties like click-to-dial become easy to implement even in basic VoIP environments, many organisations are still resolving their plans for morecomplicated integration such as desktop email, faxing, videoconferencing and the like.

“We rarely see nice, grand communications strategies,” says Gartner Research Vice President Geoff Johnson, who estimates that fewer than 20 percent of VoIP-adopting organisations are looking beyond early benefits. “What most organisations are doing is upgrading the individual modes of communications: they’re doing something in telephony, something in smartphones, and something in media tablets. They’re starting to wake up to the value of instant messaging and presence – but it’s very piecemeal.” One of the interesting trends in communications that Johnson has seen, has nothing to do with VoIP: social media. And as employees increasingly move their interactions towards socially-driven communications environments, he says, traditional boundaries between voice and VoIP will become far less important.

“The interesting thing is the displacement of traditional email with Facebook messaging,” he explains. “By 2014, we’re saying, 40 percent of knowledge workers will have abandoned their desk phones because the interesting conversations are going on elsewhere.”

Drivers for change

For many agencies, then, VoIP has become an infrastructure enabler as much as a productivity enabler. This was the case for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), which years ago committed $143 million to a VoIP upgrade that would replace its ailing decade-old PABX and support the expansion of the organisation’s callcentre infrastructure.

Working with Optus and consulting partner Alphawest, DIAC has rolled out a VoIP infrastructure based on Nortel (now Avaya) Communications Server 1000 (CS1000) IP PABXes. The 12-month rollout reached around 30 offices nationwide and currently supports over 8500 phones and faxes, as well as providing five-digit nationwide internal dialling and early UC capabilities such as faxing to the inboxes of contact centre staff.

“We were expanding our contact centres and needed the VoIP capability to be able to support what was a considerable improvement in relation to the services we provided staff,” says Tim Drury, Acting First Assistant Secretary with DIAC. “Our equipment was reaching its end of life and when we looked into the market, VoIP was the most cost-effective way of doing it.” The migration wasn’t simple, however: in assessing its bandwidth requirements for the move to VoIP, DIAC found that many of its offices not only had outdated PABX equipment, but had too little capacity to support the new environment. Canberra-area offices are connected at up to 150Mbps over the governmentrun ICON (Intra Government Communications Network) fibre network, but outlying offices had as little as 512Kbps of bandwidth and “latency issues” that in many cases required network redesigns.

Floor walks before the rollout saw DIAC technical staff speak to users to identify potential trouble spots such as areas where complex configurations threatened problems. This approach helped staff anticipate problems and work quickly to address them, then adapt their network planning to ensure adequate service levels all around.

“One of the key lessons we took out of this is that something of this size and magnitude needs to have this capacity in place,” says Drury. “We had a separate network improvement project predicated on the need to support VoIP. We had to ensure the VoIP had the primacy to be able to support it.” While DIAC has installed brand-new Nortel VoIP handsets with screens, they’re not being used for much yet: “we have looked at things like staff directories,” says Drury, “but we haven’t done it yet. The key issue was reliability, which was previously lacking. Now we rarely get any outages.” While large government departments use VoIP as the impetus for long-overdue network refreshes that run into the tens of millions of dollars, some smaller government bodies are finding their smaller infrastructure means the shift to VoIP is far less onerous – and the potential rewards from embracing UC, far more substantial.

Mountainous Cooma-Monaro Shire Council found out the value of going the full hog when it replaced its nine-year-old Ericsson PABX with a VoIP environment from ShoreTel.

“Cost issues had reached the point where maintenance was being postponed or stopped altogether as service charges were considered more than the value of the Ericsson system itself,” says Scott Goudie, the council’s manager for information technology and telecommunications. “Council management was concerned that monthly telephony bills were excessive, and demanding greater control and more transparency on telephony costs. But our stakeholder base is essentially rural, and when it comes to spending money, they are very quick to spot a lazy dollar; we had to be able to demonstrate that an investment we made in UC would be money well spent.” In partnership with integrators Nu Teck Communications and RJS Communications, the system was rolled onto an existing data network linking the council’s administration centre and a works depot, library, and visitor centre. Despite its enthusiasm for UC, the council selected a relatively conventional handset, the ShoreTel IP Phone 230, a multiline desktop speakerphone.

Instead, the smarts of the council’s system are concentrated on the desktop, where Shoreware Professional Call Manager call-routing software enables better call routing and Microsoft Outlook integration enables click-to-call capabilities. This last feature alone was recently calculated to have saved employees an average of 60 working hours per year just by cutting down the time spent dialling phone numbers, while elimination of 17 legacy ISDN services has saved the council over $20,000 per year.

That may be peanuts for a major state or Commonwealth Department, but at the local level it’s a significant level of savings that’s expected to help the system pay for itself within less than four years. And while a reduction in hours spent dialling the phone may seem like a somewhat pedestrian justification for VoIP compared with the vendor story, such improvements are all that many organisations need to justify taking the plunge.

Gartner’s Johnson agrees: “it’s the productive use of these things that’s important Gartner’s Geoff Johnson – and not necessarily just throwing capital at them,” he says. “People are so creative in their use that they just need basic or nominal tools. The best place to run processes is on the PC, where the real grunt is.

And unified communications software licenses can cost less for a year than for a single day of employee travel.” In the long term, benefits may come from yet other circles: some organisations are getting serious about using VoIP as the basis for communicationsenabled business processes (CEBP), in which conventional enterprise applications are given hooks into back-end VoIP and UC services.

Another transformative paradigm is fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) – in which employees run IP telephony applications on smartphones that function as phone extensions. In the FMC world, calls can roam on to and back from the mobile network with seamless handover between corporate and mobile networks – allowing employees to access low-cost billing arrangements when they’re on-network, without having to use a separate phone.

This sort of seamless mobility, combined with the eventual introduction of VoIP-capable tablet computers in some circumstances, will obviate the need for desk phones in the long term, says the NT government’s Haigh. “As things get off the ground, fixed handsets will start to diminish, particularly as people start to rely on their mobile phones,” he explains.

“The desk phone will become more of a crossover technology with high-end applications and touchpads, mobile computers, videoconferencing and so on – rather than being just your traditional voice phone. The real challenge is not to get caught up in your technology roadmap to the extent that you take your eye off the market.”

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