Gary D's Take

IP Telephony for everybody….?????

The latest greatest buzz is something called VOIP or Voice over Internet Protocol. To really understand VOIP we have to differentiate it from its predecessors digital voice or TDM, better known as T-1 or PRI and analog or POTS (Plain Old Telephone System).

Let’s make this quick, easy and not too technical. Analog (POTS) requires one circuit for each call and that circuit remains open for the duration of the call. Not a bad way to handle one or two calls but as the traffic to a specific point increases….well you see the problem. TDM gave us the capability to route multiple calls through a four wire interface. Obviously for a business that has multiple incoming and outgoing voice calls, TDM is a far superior method to analog and is the predominant “business” technology today. VOIP or IP telephony turns voice into data packets so that information can travel over a data network along with other data traffic like email, word documents and music downloads.

What are the advantages of having voice and data on one network? First and foremost, you get to have one wire to each work station. This eliminates an entire wiring infrastructure for voice. Most IP phones have a switch built in so that you plug the phone into the network and your computer into the phone. Voila, one wire to the desktop! In an office with five workstations this is not really a big deal but in an environment where there are five hundred workstations it is sort of like my example about having POTS lines coming to your business – two or three are no big deal but as the numbers grow………

The second important advantage of IP telephony is something the telephone industry calls moves, add and changes. John and Bill trade offices or cubicles but need to keep the same extension numbers. In the traditional telephone world this usually requires a service call and a couple of hundred dollars to accomplish. With IP telephones, as Bill and John exit their respective offices with their laptops, staplers and personal items they also take their phones. They then plug their devices into the existing network interfaces and they are done without the aid of a serviceman and sans the cost. Once again as the number of phones grows, the cost savings is also exponential.

About now, you are saying “OK so VOIP is really just for BIG businesses with lots of employees” and to some extent you are correct, however there is a counter-revolutionary movement going on in the phone world that has changed that forever!

This movement was started by a guy named Linus Torvold, the father of Linux the open source, free in most cases, non-proprietary, pain in Microsoft’s keister operating system that continues to lurk in the shadows and scare the traditional software world to death. The big scary is really called ASTERISK! Developed by Mark Spencer using the Linux operating system that Linus Torvold sired. Imagine if you will a telephone system that has all the functionality and features of a really high end (spelled C-O-S-T-L-Y) IP telephone system, that will (in theory) run on an old PC that you were going to throw away, that uses a fifty dollar IP phone that you can buy on E-bay and the base operating code is (dare we say) FREE!

WOW! Impressed yet? As in most things…..if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t and without throwing in the “some conditions may apply, see the fine print for details” disclaimer let me qualify the above paragraph. First of all, everything I said above is absolutely, unequivocally TRUE! I know because I have done exactly what I said, more than once. And in doing so , I learned a lot of things about open source IP telephony. Unless you are willing to spend the time, energy, money and brainpower that guys like me, who do this for a living and have wives that understand we are a little crazy, have done—–keep reading and I will tell you how it really is.

First of all, just as you would never dream of building your own car from parts (ala Johnny Cash) or using Do-It-Yourself Brain Surgery, don’t try to build your own phone system-buy one from someone who has already done the time. Companies like Digium have lists of partners all over the country that can help you. Digium and Fonality have started marketing pre-configured Asterisk based systems, appliances if you will, which already have the software and hardware configured to specifications.

Why would you want one of these PBX systems as opposed to a more traditional system? Firstly the cost will be approximately the same as a traditional system for an open source based system. Compare this to a “name brand” IP telephone system like Cisco or Avaya or even Nortel. The feature to feature comparison will be pretty much the same between the “Big Three” and an open source system. As for the cost of upgrades and maintenance costs , there is no comparison , the “name brand” will be higher by a factor of at least three. Finally the all important start up costs come into play. The price of admission for a Cisco Call Manager system of some moderate size can easily be north of a quarter million dollars with Avaya and Nortel running close behind while an open source system with a comparable (or in some cases better) feature set will run less than half the initial cost of the others. Does the idea of having a phone system that will do everything a high end system will do for the same money as a “Plain Old” telephone system sound good to you?

Let’s talk about telephone over the Internet. I phrase it this way because I want to distinguish telephone over the Internet from Voice over Internet Protocol. When your telephone traffic runs over your internal network it uses Internet Protocol or Ethernet. That traffic does not necessarily travel through the World Wide Web. Do I use internet telephone? Absolutely everyday no problem. Can I recommend to a business whose life line to their customer base is through the telephone system that they switch their voice traffic to the internet? Not in good concisions and certainly not with out doing an in depth study of their incoming and outgoing phone traffic. Do I think routing some voice over the internet is a good idea, absolutely! For example, a company that makes a good many international calls or just a lot of long distance can route some of those calls through an internet based provider and save a significant amount of money. Internet routing is also a good way to expand capacity either inbound or outbound very cost effectively. Here’s one scenario that is interesting. Let’s say company A has started picking up some business in another city, its not quite time to open an office there yet but it would be nice to have a local phone in that town for marketing purposes and for the customers they already have. In the traditional telephone world this is a costly and arduous process. In the IP telephony world, if you want a number in Uganda I can get it for you in about ten minutes and it will cost less than twenty bucks a month.

Another benefit of this type of telephony for the small to medium business is mobility. There have been numerous studies on how a work from home worker or teleworker is usually more motivated, sometimes of a higher quality that a stationery worker and costs far less to employ. Using IP telephony you can put a little bit of technology at someone’s home and give them the same functionality that they would have if they worked in your office. If you have a sales force, they can be more accessible out in the field and be more productive. Lastly IP telephony can untie the small business owner from the business while still allowing them to manage and direct it.

The benefits of this type of technology can be even greater for small to medium businesses than they are for big business and open source technology puts it within affordable reach of those businesses.