Moving to VoIP Affects Agency Culture


By Jeff Erlichman, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media

Buying VoIP means digging deep into what providers can and cannot do and asking tough questions.

Some call VoIP a “game changing” technology because it fundamentally alters how we think about what communications are. What VoIP does is expand the communications capabilities to seamlessly integrate voice, video and data capabilities.


So, while you need to be extra prudent assessing the nuts-and-bolts of VoIP, you also need to take the same care when dealing with the other side of the buying equation – your agency culture and how VoIP is going to change how people work, because some features may take some people out of their comfort level.


Questions and Queries
But first things first; what should you be asking any provider about their VoIP capabilities.


Pete Tseronis, DOE Deputy Associate CIO said to ask, “How often do you do IT refresh? How many customers are you supporting today running VoIP? How many customers are you supporting today doing Cloud Computing?”


In a recent interview with 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media he counseled prospective buyers to make a few phone calls, bring the carriers in and have them explain their technology refresh cycle.


For Tseronis the reasons for doing this are simple. “If I know why I’m asking the questions, then it puts the carrier on alert and says, ‘I can’t just sell this guy a bill of goods, trust us and you will be fine.’ You have to have that dialogue; you have to ask ‘what’s the makeup of your team?’ How long have you been running a converged network?”


But not only should you be asking about present capabilities, but peer into the future. Tseronis urged buyers to ask them “how are you supporting and what constitutes social media? What's your vision? What's your technology road map? Tell me where you are going to be in five years in terms of deploying and building off Unified Communications (UC)? Where are you going to be in five years with the Internet? How are you going to deploy these features?”


This is so important according to Tseronis because if the carrier is on the Networx contract, then they have been vetted to provide VoIP services. But if your goal is to have one service provider, you have to know how they operate.


“That's where Service Level Agreements (SLAs) come into play. What are the metrics? How am I going to rate you are really going to provide me that return on investment? How are you going to deliver on your promise of the “five nines” of availability?” You need a solid partnership because your network depends on it.


Be An Informed Consumer
When it comes time to actually buy VoIP, there is a lot of excellent information available from Third Party experts, such as VoIP News and Smart-VoIP, who have no vested interest in a particular brand.


The rules of smart buying apply to VoIP as they do for any large investment. According to Smart-VoIP's Phil Waidhofer, there are three main kinds of phone systems: KSU Less, KSU and PBX. In general, KSU Less and KSU are not designed for large installations; they are best suited for residential or small office use.

Not only should you be asking about present capabilities, but peer into the future.

Government installations are going to take the Private Branch Exchange (PBX) route, which essentially acts as a clearinghouse for your phone calls. So instead of every office phone line being directly connected to the phone network as in residential use, lines are managed and controlled by a PBX. Initially the thinking was IP-PBXs were best suited for smaller installations. That has changed as with hosted providers are able to manage thousands of users.


The IP-Private Branch Exchange (IP-PBX)
PBX systems have been around for decades, first in analog and since the 1990s as Internet technology became prevalent digital. According to Waidhofer, these digital IP-PBXs have many technical advantages that cut costs and increase the flexibility of your phone system.  Switching from an analog PBX to an IP-PBX is definitely a money-saver.


VoIP achieves these benefits because it “uses the power of the internet inside your company to route calls on your existing LAN and Broadband connections resulting in intra-company calls being free (save for your Internet bandwidth costs). Phone system flexibility is improved because you can manage all the phones in your system – even the ones in that remote office – from secure web pages,” said Waidhofer.


Hosted vs. On-Premise IP-PBX Systems
There are two types of IP-PBX systems – On-premise IP-PBX and Hosted IP-PBX. While they provide similar services, there are differences, starting with their names. One is onsite; the other is hosted by a service provider at their site.


While start-up costs of the On-Premise IP-PBX are higher, ongoing costs are lower. You are going to pay annual fees for maintenance and will require an onsite person to physically manage the server. You choose and pay for the features you desire and while intra-office calls are free, you pay your negotiated phone rates when you call out.


A Hosted IP-PBX is well – hosted. It's a managed service, so initial costs are lower, but ongoing maintenance can be higher and is usually included in your monthly service fee. You are tied into the features your provider provides. Again, intra-office calls are free and you pay you negotiated rate when you call out.


The bottom line according to Waidhofer is you need to look at today's and tomorrow's needs and carefully assess the usable life of your telephone equipment, features, number of users and of course, your budget.


Then there is SIP or Session Initiation Protocol. This is how the IP-PBX connects to the regular phone lines or the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). The two systems are not compatible and SIP fixes the incompatibility by making a “bridge over troubled waters”. You buy this service from your provider or a “SIP Trunking Vendor”.


Also, when you migrate to VoIP, you must make sure your LAN and WAN have enough capacity to handle VoIP, are configured correctly and are secure.


“That's why the first thing you do,” said Tseronis, “is develop a worst case scenario if you have an antiquated or aged network and you haven't done an IT refresh in a while. Use this as an opportunity to make the case that we've got to upgrade our infrastructure anyway because it's outdated, the switches are no longer supported by, everybody relies on network equipment for plumbing.”


And if you do that added Tseronis, there may be VoIP in your future.


Sources: Sprint, Smart-VoIP, VoIP News, Cisco Systems, Polycom Systems, Greenspring Partners