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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the May 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has matured to the point where the technology is now poised to become part of a major paradigm shift in the way organizations communicate. The most relevant VoIP technology for facility managers is enterprise level, robust, and secure. It is frequently used for communications between employees within an organization at single or multiple locations, and it is flexible, easy to manage, and attractively priced.
Currently, VoIP is capable of some incredible functionality, because all voice traffic is “soft switched.” That means it is converted into a digital stream and then routed and stored.
The capabilities of the system are no longer limited by hardware such as a PBX (private branch exchange) switch. The digital information can be integrated, switched, stored, and distributed across any network capable of running Internet Protocol (IP)—the vast majority of networks in the world. Once in the digital realm, information can be routed and managed in limitless ways.
Today’s VoIP has many features that traditional phone systems simply cannot provide. (However, using VoIP does not mean having to abandon the organization’s legacy systems; VoIP can be connected to existing PBXs and e-mail software.) For example, some VoIP vendors are now selling integrated communications suites that combine e-mail, voice mail, teleconferencing, and video conferencing—all accessible via a Web-based computer interface that can be used from anywhere in the world.
Instead of having phones at their desks, customers can now either use their computers with handsets, headsets, or VoIPphones. So instead of dialing the VoIP phone, they can click on a name in the contacts list on their screen; the system automatically connects to the call recipient regardless of location, because the VoIP knows which line to call based on what the user tells the system. Customers can now even buy devices that work as VoIP inside the organization’s facility and as cell phones when they are away from the building.
VoIP also eases conference call logistics. All users need to do is visit a designated Web page and click and drag names from their contact lists onto a conference call icon. The availability of individuals is shown in the software. Integrated VoIP systems can also connect people to a conference via other methods, including video (if the user has that capability) or even text-only, allowing users to keep abreast of what is happening through whatever means they have available to them.
Voice mail is also transformed in unified VoIP, with all calls being recorded as .wav files that are displayed in a list on the screen showing who called, when they called, and the length of call; a person can listen just by clicking. And, because everything is digital, the system can be accessed from anywhere via the Internet.
For the facility manager who oversees a phone system, VoIP can make life much easier. Instead of dealing with cumbersome reprogramming of the PBX, the manager can use VoIP to add, move, relocate, and change phone extensions via a Web interface. There is no more delay while waiting for a service technician to reprogram the PBX. Also, facility managers can have users set up their own voice mail and call routing by giving them a Web address and a password. Many facility managers find their workload dramatically reduced by switching to VoIP.
Another big reason VoIP is growing in popularity is lower cost for large organizations. Because it is so flexible and easy to manage, many vendors are claiming a 40% reduction in total cost of ownership due to ease of administration and maintenance.
So it sounds like VoIP is the cure for whatever ails a communications system, right? Still, there are challenges. First, if a facility is going to run VoIP, the network better be good. Most networks run acceptably with routine administrative LAN traffic (downloading files, accessing the Internet, etc.). However, when running VoIP, the network needs to perform at peak efficiency at all times. A slight delay during an important phone call can be disastrous.
Prospective users should not be fooled just because their present system has the latest switches; the network topography requires custom design of Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN), load balancing, and other elements that demand an intimate knowledge of the capabilities, scripting, and limitations of the brand of switch being used. It is prudent to call in a certified professional to assess the network before even thinking of implementing VoIP on a network.
Another aspect to study is security. In the old days, someone could listen to phone calls by tapping in with an unauthorized connection. To do this, the hacker needed physical access to the cabling. With VoIP, a hacker does not need to be physically connected, because VoIP is connected to a data network that is tied to all the computers in the organization (as well as the Internet). If just one of those computers becomes infected with spyware that runs packet sniffing software, phone calls from specific people could be recorded and sent back to the hacker.
Proper network security, including firewalls and encryption between sites, is an absolute necessity. Facility managers considering VoIP should be aware that this carries a capacity and performance price, so more robust equipment may be needed.
These challenges may seem a little daunting, but they are really no different than the same due diligence exercise that would be performed before installing any phone system.
All in all, it looks like VoIP is not only here to stay, but it is about to change the way organizations communicate in a profound manner.
Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.