Most enterprises embrace Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications -- at least in theory. And most telecommunications vendors market little else. However, the actual deployment numbers tell a different story. According to Infonetics, in 2005 pure IP accounted for less than 18% of voice port shipments, leaving the hedge-betting hybrid option at 30%. Hybrid solutions remain the top sellers.
So what's it going to take to get the fence straddlers to land on solid VoIP ground and to get the die-hard TDM-only companies -- still 29% of the enterprise population -- to take the convergence leap?
Migration strategies have been circulating for years but they need to be revised to reflect some new realities. The early adopters were looking for first-generation VoIP benefits, which centered on the efficiencies of using a single network infrastructure for voice and data. Today, the focus has shifted from plumbing issues to next-generation converged applications. SIP-enabled presence is emerging as the new dial tone and wireless technologies are creating unprecedented mobility.
Admittedly, it can be hard to validate savings in hard dollars. But consider the savings when a customer call can be handled on the first try rather than the third or fourth. And the advantage of being able to instantly locate and plug an expert into the conversation, wherever that individual might be. Customers will be a lot happier, which in the long run is doubtless the most important payoff.
Some of the migration rules remain the same. Greenfield opportunities should be exploited to the fullest, with new facilities designed from the foundation up for convergence. For existing facilities, forklift upgrades that take a business from traditional to IP telephony in one huge companywide step are often simply unfeasible. Small and medium-size companies might manage such a drastic maneuver, but big enterprises can't just pull the plug.
Where migration is concerned, companies tend to fall into two basic camps. One is very forward-looking, seeing voice as a strategic technology that will enrich and transform business applications and processes. Virtually all such companies have begun VoIP migration to some extent.
If anything, the die-hard TDM organizations seem to be digging their heels in more determinedly. Sick of all the hype and the dire warnings about what will happen to their businesses if they don't migrate soon, they have the attitude "if it isn't broke, don't fix it." Their TDM systems work just fine, thank you, and they are not about to spend good money on a better mouse trap.
Complicating this inherent conservatism is the rash of Y2K-prompted PBX upgrades that took place when VoIP was still in the proof of concept phase. Getting companies to migrate before all this equipment is fully amortized will require a big event or clear demonstration of significant incremental value.
On the vendor side, it is harder and harder to win deals and make any profits by peddling IP-PBXs and voicemail. Suppliers are proliferating, the market is getting commoditized and customers are increasingly cost-averse. "We have a great VoIP system" falls on flat ears. Vendors need to look above the plumbing and really understand how communication works in a hospital, an insurance company or retail outfit, for example. Tightly integrated second-generation VoIP solutions must meet specific business needs and deliver measureable business improvement.
VoIP as the exception
Take the very conservative and cost-averse insurance industry, a group of companies that tend to move toward migration at glacial speeds. Some will nevertheless implement VoIP in selected areas if the benefits are compelling. For example, this industry sector understands the value of mobilizing claims adjusters with wireless IP telephony that can boost productivity and reduce costs. Those are benefits that have a direct and measurable impact on the bottom line.
Similarly, conservative companies across all industries are seeing the value of deploying VoIP to facilitate teleworking, enhance sales force automation and enable mobility and location independence. IP telephony can improve communications in environments like hospitals, where doctors and nurses are not usually sitting at desks. Likewise, contact centers can achieve new levels of performance when customer calls can be immediately routed across an enterprise WAN to other agents and special subject-matter experts, wherever they happen to be.
Consider the example of a multipurpose console with smartcard access installed in patient rooms to serve as an IP phone, a display for TV and video on demand, a delivery system for patient-education materials and a point-and-click interface for ordering meals and other hospital services. The medical staff can swipe a card and use the console for secure access to enter patient information, order a prescription from the pharmacy or access patient records or other information. This same VoIP network can support presence-enabled wireless devices -- Wi-Fi handsets, 900MHz handsets, softphone-equipped PDAs -- all integrated seamlessly into the hospital paging and nurse call systems.
Headquarters: Starting point or finish line?
With gradual migration, the most common method is to leave the big central facilities undisturbed for the moment and start the conversion to IP telephony at satellite sites. Initial targets include remote sites where TDM equipment has become fully amortized, or where dictated by site-specific business needs.
Less common and a bit more radical is the enterprise that starts at the center and migrates outward, with the headquarters' PBX being replaced by an IP softswitch in the data center. Then additional sites or departments are gradually converted as business needs or aging equipment dictate. This migration tends to accelerate as companies begin to see how much can be saved by eliminating the need to keep track of hundreds or thousands of PBXs, voicemail systems and associated service contracts.
The next stage of VoIP is about tightly integrating voice and mobility technologies into business processes. This requires an intimate understanding of business processes and workflows. While IT professionals are experts when it comes to network infrastructures, they often know little about day-to-day business specifics.
Consequently, second-generation VoIP applications don't tend to factor high on the list of projects IT departments have planned for the next couple of years. Ironically, now that IP has proven itself as a voice infrastructure, buying decisions are increasingly being entrusted to IT professionals without further input from business managers. VoIP may become a victim of its own success!
Taking VoIP to the next level requires more involvement from the line-of-business executives and managers, not less. These individuals are the ones who really understand how the claims-adjustment process works, or how communication challenges in hospitals make it difficult for doctors and nurses to serve patients. Line-of business experts are the only ones who can drive meaningful changes to business processes.
It is important to understand the magnitude of the change that convergence is effecting. Consider contact centers and CRM applications, which did not even exist 25 years ago, but are now indispensable. Second-generation VoIP applications are the new wave of must-have information technology. The first companies to exploit them will gain a big competitive advantage. If the IT staff doesn't lead this wave, a grassroots movement driven by the business managers will bring them in through the back doors, in much the same way PCs and PC-based LANs were introduced to organizations a couple of decades ago.
All enterprises today should have a strategy for complete VoIP migration and must develop a checklist for identifying solution providers that are the right fit. Small and midsized businesses will need help from some outside organization, including an infrastructure assessment to check for bandwidth bottlenecks, quality of service (QoS) capabilities, appropriate service-level agreements and other VoIP-readiness metrics.
Companies committed to gradual migration can benefit from a solution provider that offers a full range of platforms, from TDM to hybrid to pure IP. The solutions must be able to scale down as well as up. Hybrid solutions should be IP at the core, but also able to support legacy technologies such as Category 3 cabling, PBX-based applications and contact center solutions that aren't yet ready for replacement.
IP standards are still evolving, so it is important that even IP components offer a migration path. For example, IP phones that currently have a proprietary feature set should support SIP upgrades in the future.
Wireless support should factor into the mobility equation. Voice over WiFi has moved from a curiosity to a solid technology that functions securely and reliably in sensitive environments, including hospitals. And increasingly cities and urban areas are blanketing themselves with WiMAX and other broadband wireless access infrastructures that can carry VoIP traffic.
Clearly, convergence is not only happening but accelerating. Today's enterprises, no matter how conservative, need to get on the VoIP learning curve and start planning for a converged future. First-generation VoIP with its focus on plumbing was deceptively simple. Moving to second-generation VoIP requires a much bigger leap, especially for companies which still have only traditional telephony. We are now talking about true convergence -- the integration of voice and wireless mobility into business applications.
Joan Vandermate, Vice President, Product Line Manager Siemens Communications, Inc.