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VoIP capabilities save hotel money, keep guests connected

"Rip and replace" were three words the Seaport Hotel in Boston didn't want to hear when considering VoIP capabilities.

VoIP capabilities without rip and replace? Sounds unheard of. But that's what the Seaport Hotel in Boston wanted when implementing a new in-room portal that allows guests to access services such as IP phone calls and other applications.

By most accounts, however, the Seaport would have to tear out its existing TDM PBX infrastructure and replace it with an IP PBX and IP in-room phones in order to get that VoIP functionality. According to John Burke, director of technology for the Seaport, that wasn't going to fly.

The Seaport was looking for a way to enhance the guest experience in its luxury waterfront hotel. Burke said the hotel went with an in-room touch-screen flat panel television that is synced into the hotel's network to deliver such services as toll-free local and long-distance phone calls, guest services, video and entertainment, and a host of other amenities, such as restaurant reservations and travel updates. A main focus of the project, called the Seaportal, was to add in VoIP-enabled services, but without the cost of replacing the existing Nortel TDM PBX.

"We looked at IP enabling our phone switch," Burke said. "We looked at Skype and looked at hosting Asterisk."

Burke said he wanted the solution to have similar functionality to an IP PBX, while also integrating with the current TDM PBX infrastructure. He said the hotel wanted to implement VoIP capabilities into the application using simple Web service APIs.

"The reason I didn't want to do a whole forklift is, this is still bleeding-edge technology," Burke said. "I didn't want to rip out the traditional PBX and replace it with bleeding-edge technology and have that be our sole PBX system."

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Burke said he wanted to keep the traditional PBX on hand to ensure that guests and hotel staff could safely dial 911 if needed, and since telephone service is critical in a hotel, he wanted to ensure maximum reliability. The hotel was able to leverage its existing PBX by adding in SessionSuite SOA Edition from BlueNote Networks. The software delivers the services, tools and interfaces to integrate real-time communication services with a range of software applications while providing the features, functions and benefits of a comprehensive enterprise-wide VoIP deployment.

The modular SessionSuite platform delivers voice and video communications as Web Services in a service-oriented architecture (SOA), so organizations can add interactive communications to business processes using standard XML-based SOAP interfaces.

Sally Bament, vice president of marketing, product management, for BlueNote Networks, said the in-room portal allows guests to initiate phone calls from the touch-screen. Essentially, they dial from the touch-screen using a softphone-like dialer. The call is sent to the Web server, where the portal application sits. From there, a Web services request is sent to the SessionSuite; the SessionSuite creates a call between the traditional Nortel PBX and the Internet cloud to the recipient of the call and connects the two. The SessionSuite SOA edition also uses the Nortel PBX to connect the room to the hotel's guest services.

Burke said he can't disclose the exact cost of a rip and replace, but it would've been roughly four times as much as they paid for the project and would've taken longer to deploy. The time frame for the project was tight, and the requirements were a tall order. "We really need to IP enable this phone switch in a 90-day time frame," he said.

The goal of the project, Burke added, is to have 100 rooms enabled by mid-February. The hotel is on track with that goal, and so far there have been no hiccups.

"If you come to stay with us, you don't need to bring your laptop," he said, adding that you can get email, attachments and printing from the touch-screen. There are also USB ports for guests to pull up documents.

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