Thursday, November 8, 2007

IP Telephony in the SMB

For years our Cisco VAR has been trying to get us to go to an IP phone system. I trust our reseller but kept asking him when he was going to put in his own IP system. Finally he did and the stakes got serious. "Come on, Tim. You could save your company thousands of dollars a year by putting in VoIP." Being the cautious guy that I am, I investigated several competitors, read their literature and listened to their sales pitches. I got several quotes and yes, the estimates bore out his claims. We probably could save thousands of dollars a year mainly because we have VPNs with remote locations.

So why did we sign another contract with AT&T, who now manages our local services which used to be provided by SBC and PacBell before that? Fear of change. Yep. No matter how persuasive it looked on paper I could not convince management that it would sound just as good to our clients. Given the type of clients we handle I can understand that saving $25,000 or even $50,000 was nothing compared to the fear of losing a client that generates millions of dollars in annual revenue. Besides, AT&T lowered our prices by bundling local and long distance together.

Now don't get me wrong. We will eventually go to IP Telephony and it may be sooner than management thinks. Why? Because we are running a 15-year old Panasonic DBS 72 hybrid phone system that could crash any day. The voice mail system is just as old - an Active Voice Replay Plus running in DOS on a 486. A 486? Yes, a 486! I swear someone did a great job of selling Active Voice systems back in the early 90's. I have managed the same system at each of the four companies I have worked for in the past 12 years.

So what was management so concerned about? Latency and Jitter. Gamers know latency as lag and jitter is the recompilation of packets in an order that can make speech unintelligible. I get a lot of calls from third-world call centers when I call for tech support. I don't intentionally call India but that's where it ends up. Most of these tech support centers are running VoIP and to me, it is very noticeable. I can understand why management is concerned if all VoIP calls sound like some I've had to put up with lately. But we put up with bad cell phone calls, don't we?

And yet management can be funny about wanting cost savings on fixed costs like phone bills. At one time I had to respond to requests from several managers as to why we weren't using Skype to communicate with our flight crews. Supposedly there are 250 million registered Skype users with as many as 10 million on line at any one point in time. Do you remember what happened to Skype on Aug 16th 2007? The network failed for two days due to so many users rebooting their systems after applying the regularly scheduled Microsoft security patches on patch Tuesday.

The FCC offers a great web site for educating the public about VoIP. How Stuff Works has a good multi-part article online that explains VoIP in simple enough terms that I could even recommend it to some of the management team. Pay special attention to part 8, the disadvantages to VoIP. Unlike regular phone service, VoIP depends on local power. And of course there is always Wikipedia for a fairly in-depth look at the topic.

What do you think? If you are in a small business, have you implemented VoIP yet?

No comments: