VoIP vendors are enjoying a boom market these days, and there are plenty of surveys around to confirm that fact. For example, a recent poll of 157 IT professionals by consulting firm BT INS found that 62 percent of respondents had either deployed or were in the process of deploying VoIP across their networks in 2006. This was a jump from 44 percent the previous year. Another 18 percent said they were designing or testing VoIP deployments for limited network segment.
We talked to a couple of Canadian organisations that have opted for VoIP to get a feel for how their implementations have gone, and the good news is that neither of them waved any worrisome red flags.
Here then is a look at the VoIP experience of Transat Tours and Peel District School Board, through the eyes of their CIOs.
Transat books its VoIP voyage
Transat Tours, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is North America's largest package tour operator and the fifth largest in the world. It hasn't been easy for the Montreal-based company's telephone systems to keep up with its rapid growth.
"We had at the beginning of this fiscal year essentially a PBX and telecommunications environment that reflected organic growth more than a strategic view of the impact of telecommunications and call centres on Transat," says CIO Corrine Charette.
"In our principal Montreal headquarters location and one of our key call centres, we had some very dated equipment that had been here for over five years and had not had the benefit of regular upgrading. In fact it had very little upgrading, and while it continued to do the job, it was certainly at risk of failure and did not really have the technology base to support the kinds of more sophisticated call centre operations that we're now moving towards."
In particular, Transat wanted to be able to distribute incoming calls more efficiently across its major call centres in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Depending on the time of day, special promotions and other factors, each of these call centres sometimes experiences particularly heavy call volumes. At present, explains Ian Richards, director of telecommunications at Transat, a busy call centre can transfer calls to another centre, but it can only do so "blindly". While it is possible to estimate how busy another location would be, there is no real-time information on agents' status.
The existing systems also don't provide as much redundancy as Transat wants in case of failures at any one location, Richards adds.
So Transat is implementing Voice Over IP technology from Avaya Inc. to link the call centres over its wide-area network. When the work is completed by the end of 2007, Charette says, the new system will be able to route incoming calls to the best-qualified available agent in any call centre across the country, balancing call loads across all three locations.
The call-center system isn't IP from end to end -- at least not yet. The existing, relatively new, digital phones will stay on call-center agents' desks. Transat will use IP to route calls among the call centres over its wide-area network. The company is implementing end-to-end VoIP in some smaller administrative offices, though. There it will replace aging telephone key systems.
Peel graduates to IP technology
The Peel District School Board's situation was similar. The private branch exchange at its Mississauga, Ontario, head office was about 20 years old and on its last legs. Peak call loads, such as parents phoning in on stormy mornings to find out if schools would be open, frequently overloaded it. "We had no choice," says Laura Williams, the board's chief information officer. "We had to make an investment."
Installing another traditional PBX was an option, and the board considered it. "We had a wide-area network in place," Williams says, "and so that afforded us looking at these sorts of options. To go IP was not a lot of extra money, and we just felt that there was a lot more growth and potential as opposed to staying with the old style of phone system. I think it was about $50,000 more than a traditional PBX and yet we've already got our money and more from this added functionality."
Last fall, the board installed a Cisco Unified Communications system to serve the roughly 500 employees at head office. Though the board's 230 schools have their own phone systems, many of them fairly new because they were upgraded to avoid Year 2000 date problems, the central system will also be used to provide some added services to schools.
At the board's head office, the new system has made it possible to create about a dozen call centres for particular types of calls, from questions about human resources issues to requests for IT help. Some of these, such as the IT help desk, are staffed by people whose full-time job is answering calls. In other cases, the IP system simply routes calls to the appropriate people wherever they are. This allows the board to deal with questions more efficiently, and it wouldn't have been possible with the old PBX, Williams says.
This is a key benefit of IP telephony, says Jon Arnold, Toronto-based principal of consultancy J. Arnold & Associates and a specialist in IP communications. "The more you can have these intelligent routing capabilities, the more you can get resolutions faster." "I also have statistics that tell me how busy our help desks are, what our peak times are and also how many abandoned calls we get," adds Williams. That information, which the old system couldn't provide, helps with decisions about staffing levels.
Now, Peel is working to connect its schools to the IP phone system over its internal data network. "We're going to route our internal calls through our wide-area network," Williams explains. "Most schools can only afford say four to eight telephone lines outbound, and what was happening was some of those lines were being used to call other board locations. So what we want to do is take the internal calls off of that, and in doing so free up the outbound capacity. You can imagine in a school of say 100 teachers, the outbound phone lines get tied up pretty quickly." That's particularly true before and after classes and during lunch hour, when teachers take advantage of time away from the classroom to call parents as well as board offices.
"It's strictly a business case," she continues. "It costs us about $1 million over a four-year period to add two phone lines to every school, and so by taking that traffic off and routing it internally we avoid that cost, so that's a fairly significant effort for us. We've already done a number of schools as a pilot and that was very well received." The cost of connecting one school to the IP phone system is about $300, Williams says.
Like the Peel school board, Transat is installing Voice Over IP in some smaller locations. The main impetus in this case is that the offices need new equipment and it makes sense to make the move to IP now, Charette says. As an added plus, Transat gains some experience with end-to-end IP technology in some smaller locations. And the new IP systems will be easier to manage remotely than their predecessors, which offered little support for remote monitoring. "Sometimes we were only aware of problems in those offices when we got calls from them," Charette says.
Avoiding the bleeding edge
Transat won't be rolling out VoIP to every desktop in the company just yet, and the company doesn't plan to install IP trunks for about another two years, Richards says. "We haven't really ascertained the real business benefit of doing that right away, considering that there are additional costs involved in moving to a complete Voice Over IP basis," Charette says.
"We don't take a bleeding-edge strategy approach," she continues. "Our technology strategy at Transat is to be basically in the middle of the pack. We like to adopt technology that has proven itself in larger, mature enterprises so that when we do adopt it we can rely upon the solution."
While Transat initially plans to use IP's call-center virtualisation capabilities simply to tie together its existing call centre locations, Charette and Richards say they are intrigued by the technology's potential to let agents work almost anywhere, including from home.
That's a key advantage of IP, Arnold notes. "Because any broadband connection will do, it's much easier for you to support remote call centre agents."
"In the last year we've done an important pandemic exercise, and our executive committee wanted to make sure we had a solid pandemic plan," Charette says. "One of the possibilities was that people might need to work from home. So that was certainly a factor. Another factor of course is bad weather -- for whatever reason, you can't get enough staff in on any given day.
"Also, the travel business is evolving and certainly we see elsewhere companies with different models of travel agents and call-center agents. So it's something that we're definitely studying and exploring, and the fact that we have the technology base that will allow us to do that is really critical, because we won't have to reinvest in any significant way to be able to turn that switch on if there was a business decision to go that way."
Reaping the benefits
Peel District School Board's Williams says another benefit of switching to IP is easier moves, adds and changes. "You're cabling once for both your telephone and your data," she points out, "but also, when somebody moves offices -- and this head office is like other head offices, people do that all the time -- you just pick up your phone and go."
Peel is also using its IP system for voice conferencing, something that Williams says was too cumbersome to be worthwhile before. "We used to pay someone externally for that," she says. "We've got quite a large geographic area and voice conferencing obviously makes it much easier to have quick meetings. I think because we're now doing this internally, people are more inclined to do it. If you have to have someone externally set it up, you don't tend to do it."
Peel is also exploring the idea of providing soft phones on laptop computers to teachers who move from classroom to classroom and school to school. Resource teachers who don't stay in one place often don't have single telephone numbers where they can always be reached. The board can't afford to provide them all with cell phones, Williams says, but a soft phone that will work as long as the computer on which it runs is plugged into the board's wide-area network could do the job. Right now Peel is trying this idea out in a pilot project involving about 20 users.
Tuning up for VoIP
In general, Williams says, it takes a bit of fine-tuning to get the best results out of IP telephony. "We had Telus assist us," she says, "and if someone was doing this I would suggest not doing it on your own, because with most technology you want to get it right the first time or people lose confidence in it. Certainly there was some configuration up front, and it was very helpful to have both Cisco and Telus helping us with that." Transat started by assessing its network's readiness for Voice Over IP, and did some upgrades. "We're adding redundancy; we anticipated the requirements for telephony when we were doing that and we have put in a specific class of service for real-time traffic so that we give special treatment and recognise voice traffic."
"We've increased bandwidth in a number of key areas," Charette adds. "Our business volumes continue to grow and so it's inevitable that we'll need more and more bandwidth. But also in studying the situation we detected some areas where we were at capacity, and we have expanded that as well."
That's typical, Arnold says. Any enterprise shifting to IP telephony should assess its network's readiness first, and "I suspect what they'll find is that their networks aren't fully compatible or lack the capacity."
Such issues are common, which is one reason -- along with investment in existing technology -- why businesses have not been quick to replace older technology with VoIP. Most IP telephony installations come when existing systems reach the end of their lives or contracts for services such as Centrex run out, Arnold says. But when that time comes, he adds, these days there is almost always at least an element of IP in the new system.
Sidebar: Tackling your VoIP implementation
Though there have been no major problems and Transat's VoIP implementation has stayed more or less on schedule, CIO Corinne Charette says it is a complex and challenging project.
"It's really fundamentally a systems integration project involving the implementation of hardware and software, tuning, multiple vendors, users with expectations and short cutover periods," she says.
"It requires a lot of planning, really careful project management and diligent follow-through. And it also requires roll-up-your-sleeves implementation from all of your vendor partners to succeed. It is certainly as challenging a systems project as any other applications development project that can be taken on."
For most enterprises that move to IP telephony, "I would have to say the implementation process probably goes fairly slowly," Arnold says. Few have all the necessary expertise in house, so they will need to rely on systems integrators and value-added resellers to provide the necessary know-how.
"If someone was going down this road, I would say there are two things they can get a start on long before you bring in any consultant in to assist you," says Peel's Laura Williams. "One is to go out and certify your data network. The other thing that took us quite a while was to talk through how we wanted calls processed. That was a pretty lengthy discussion because we'd never had that option before, and that's not something that has to wait for the consultant."
The implementation itself took about three months, but Peel wasn't in a hurry to make the final switch. "We gave everybody two phones," Williams recalls, "and we let everybody get comfortable with the new phone system before we took out the old phone system. So it was actually a really smooth implementation because essentially you're running in parallel. You don't often have that opportunity in the IT world."
The old phones came out about three months after the new IP system went live, by which point most people had switched over. Some started using the new phones right away, some were a little slower, Williams says, but "by the time we were pulling the second phone off the desk, most people were saying ' what took you so long?'" she recalls.
End users at Transat won't be as much affected by the change, because the company won't be changing the phones on their desks at present. Nonetheless, Charette says, Transat involved users right from the beginning of the request for proposal process.
Though Charette expects the need for training to be minimal, since most of the changes are under the covers, Transat has taken care to align both training and the cutover to new technology to slow periods in the company's business cycle. The one downside to that is that the slow period in the summer coincides with many staff and vendor vacations.