IP telephony a step at a time
IP telephony has long been the bridesmaid of the communications industry. A maturing technology that sends voice traffic over existing data networks, including wide-area networks such as the Internet, its proponents originally touted its toll-bypass advantages.
But the technology, also known as voice over IP, suffered early on from a reputation for poor audio quality. Toll-call savings are of minor interest to government agencies that already enjoy economies offered by governmentwide telecommunications contracts. Lower costs alone don't justify significant investments in IP telephony and related network upgrades.
Even with today's high-bandwidth networks and better traffic management tools, which keep voice-packet losses down and voice quality up, many organizations are reluctant to rip out traditional and reliable phone systems.
"The fundamental challenge for IP telephony is that the traditional phone system is ubiquitous and it just works," said Steve Hunt, vice president and chief information officer for SI International Inc., a systems integrator that specializes in federal contracts.
But a growing number of agencies are taking a new look at IP telephony. Demands for greater organizational efficiency and enticing new telephony applications are making traditional phones look increasingly less fashionable. Now, a wider selection of hybrid products enables IP telephony skeptics to slowly roll out the technology without severing their umbilical connections to the public switched telephone network.
The combined approach is becoming popular enough to be considered a staple among a range of vendors, from traditional makers of PBX equipment such as Nortel Networks Ltd., Siemens AG, Avaya Inc. or Alcatel, to those coming from the data networking industry, such as Cisco Systems Inc., 3Com Corp. and AltiGen Communications Inc.
Having the best of both worlds is providing transition comfort for early adopters, which is promoting sales. "Most federal agencies are beginning to at least look at voice over IP," said Howard Stern, senior vice president with Federal Sources Inc. consulting firm in McLean, Va.
Data from technology researcher Gartner Inc. shows widespread interest in voice over IP. Total IP telephony sales across all vertical markets this year are expected to reach $2.2 billion and grow 20 percent per year through 2006.
Vendors say federal agencies have multiple reasons for switching to IP telephony. One of the most attractive benefits is the ability to tie headquarters and branch offices together within a single, integrated phone system, said Russell Brodsky, sales manager for Siemens Federal Solutions in Reston, Va.
After that is completed, an employee in a field office who receives a voice mail message can simply forward it to an expert at headquarters, rather than call to deliver the message. Callers may also dial within an agency using shortened phone numbers or by typing the first few letters of a last name. Meeting participants may also set up phone conferences regardless of one another's geographic location, said Jeanne Bayerl, Alcatel's director of product marketing.
For Sam Watkins, project director at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Md., having these conveniences with a hybrid approach was key to his IP telephony commitment. The agency is connecting its 35 facilities and 3,000 employees nationwide through IP telephony.
For years, NARA suffered from the maintenance hassles that came from having each facility operate its own local phone system.
"We wanted to improve communications within the agency," and IP telephony's five-digit phone numbers and enterprisewide message-forwarding capabilities looked attractive, Watkins said.
"But we still think IP telephony is not a stable and well-understood technology," he added. "IP was designed for data. In the data world, dropping a [data] packet doesn't mean anything, but in the voice world it does. Our feeling is that voice over IP, in the full sense of your phone plugging into the same network as your PCs, is not there yet technologically."
So, NARA installed two traditional PBX systems from Siemens that can also handle IP voice traffic. When the IP network is running efficiently, all 35 facilities within NARA operate under a single phone system, complete with call and voice mail forwarding, abbreviated phone numbers, and caller ID.
If a network problem disrupts IP voice traffic, the PBXs automatically move the call to the public switched telephone network. "When that happens, we loose a little functionality — my name won't appear on the call recipient's phone display," but callers usually don't notice any audio degradation, Watkins said.
He added that running two phone technologies doesn't cause confusion. "It was worse when each facility had its own phone system," he said. Consolidation did create one challenge, however. Now, when a communications problem arises in a field office, it's up to headquarters to fix it instead of a local service provider.
"We have had to add more staff to deal with service problems," Watkins said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs' Montana Healthcare System in Fort Harrison also chose Alcatel's hybrid IP solution, which more closely linked its eight clinics, some of which are hundreds of miles away from the main facility.
"We wanted everyone to feel like they were part of the medical center," said Paul Gauthier, the health care system's chief information resource manager. "Four-digit dialing helps people feel like part of the family. And dial by name is really handy; everybody loves that."
Reduced expenses are an added benefit for the health care system. Eliminating expensive intrastate tolls for calls within the network saves about $60,000 a year, Gauthier said.
Thanks to operating efficiencies, such as easy adds and changes to the phone system or the ability to remotely manage equipment, IP telephony systems can see a return on investment in two years or less, said Don Weiner, consulting systems engineer for Cisco.
Although NARA and the Montana VA found comfort in a hybrid approach, vendors and consultants say an all-IP communications system makes sense in some cases, particularly for "greenfield" installations, where an existing telephone system investment isn't a factor.
Vendors decline to compare the costs of hybrid and full-blown IP installations, saying different networks and communications requirements make generalizations inaccurate.
Hybrid systems may ease the IP transition, but they still don't ameliorate every technical problem. "It's definitely a case of some assembly required," Hunt said.
Before an organization begins to install an IP telephony system, it must have a data network in place that can reliably handle demanding voice traffic. "A lot of people think you just plug in some boxes and everything works," said Mack Leathurby, director of converged solutions marketing for Avaya. "Probably only about five percent of our customers don't have to do something to upgrade their existing network." Along with the actual communications hardware, vendors sell diagnostic software and services to find weak points in network infrastructures.
After conducting an audit, would-be IP telephony users often find themselves adding additional network switches and routers to help reduce latency times and data-packet losses.
But Hunt cautions that IP telephony, even when done with the slower hybrid approach, isn't for everyone. "If you have an aging data network that hasn't been modernized in the last three or four years, you're probably pushing the outer edge of the envelope" by installing IP telephony, he said.
Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at email@example.com.