Fast-Tracking Communications With VoIP

There is a new mode of communications transportation arriving at transit agencies. It offers cost savings, ready deployment of next-generation contact center solutions and enables information-richer interactions.

This method is voice over Internet protocol or (VoIP or IP), defined by Newton?s Telecom Dictionary as phone calls transmitted over data networks, which can be the public Internet, internal corporate networks or managed networks by communications carriers. The ?Internet protocol,? or IP, is a catchall term for describing protocols and technology that enable such calls to be encoded as data and routed as such from origins to destinations.

Richard ?Zippy? Grigonis is executive editor, Internet Telephony, a trade publication covering VoIP, and is author of The Computer Telephony Encyclopedia and the Dictionary of IP Communications. He contrasts IP with the traditional public service telephone network (PSTN), which relies on time-division-multiplex (TDM) communications technology.

IP breaks continuous voice into many packets that are transmitted independently to a destination and then reassembled. E-mail and Web chat is handled in a similar fashion. In contrast, PSTN/TDM is a continuous connection over an open circuit between two points. The connection remains open, occupying bandwidth, even if there are pauses in conversations.

IP can therefore piggyback onto existing data networks including to the CAT 5 data outlets provided to computer-equipped workstations. Existing PSTN networks can be seamlessly and affordably migrated to IP if organizations have hybrid IP-PSTN or IP-capable PSTN switches.

As IP is data, it does face security threats when being transported over the public Internet. Yet it can be readily guarded against these intrusions like data is by using virtual private networks (VPNs). VPNs provide protection through authentication, encryption and tunneling, the latter being encapsulating the encrypted data/IP packets for secure transmission.

?Packet-switched networks are ?connectionless? and therefore long pauses do not consume bandwidth, which makes them cheaper than PSTN for voice and data,? explains Grigonis. ?Voice is simply treated as another form of packetized data. Packetization enables the same data ?pipe? to be used efficiently among multiple users of various applications, of which voice is just one.?

Transit agency benefits
VoIP supplies several key benefits:

Reduced trunking, calling and server costs: IP calls, because it is data and treated as such, is much less expensive per call than those transported by PSTN. It also eliminates long distance charges on calls to and from regional facilities.

IP greatly simplifies and reduces the cost of networking multiple contact centers in different locations through having the single data pipe. Agencies need only one set of contact center management applications for their organization, tapped by these locations.

Ease and inexpense of configuration: As IP uses the same computer CAT 5 cabling as computers, agencies can reconfigure voice as well as data networks themselves. That avoids having separate phone networks, and paying for phone companies to change them around and support them.

Enabling unified communications (UC): Unified communications is the centralization of contacts: voice, e-mail, SMS, even fax, on a single software platform, enabling employees to easily receive or make contacts regardless of channel. UC can deliver a voice call to a user?s PC, automatically forward the call to voice mail, and can prompt a caller to leave a voice message. UC also permits better communications management capabilities, such as tracking callers and called parties and whether the calls and contacts are picked up or ended up in voicemail.

Growing array of competitive suppliers: Demand is increasing for IP telephony; research firm Pike and Fischer forecasts that more than 5 million U.S. businesses will have this mode by the end of 2010. This growing market is attracting a widening range of vendors. Some of them offer hybrid IP-PSTN equipment while others specialize in pure-play IP telephony. The solutions available can be designed for small offices while others can support large contact centers.

Business continuity: Multiple-site IP networks also provide business continuity as they are less vulnerable to disasters than the PSTN. Data servers can be housed many miles from where the operations take place unlike phone companies? central offices (COs).

The efficacy of data communications networks was proven when terrorists struck the World Trade Center. While e-mail was able to get through in the region, PSTN and wireless calls, whose COs and towers respectively were damaged or destroyed in the attacks, did not.

Grigonis reports that the federal government has been moving toward IP for disaster response and 9-1-1 handling. The U.S. Department of Transportation has launched an $11 million Next Generation 9-1-1 Initiative project to define the system architecture and develop a transition plan for deploying an IP-based 9-1-1 emergency network across the United States.

?For telecom, datacom, IT and the business world in general, 9/11 forced many companies, both scathed and unscathed, to reconsider ? or just consider ? their survival plans, and IP communications has inevitably become part of those plans,? says Grigonis. ?That VoIP can be used over any network from any locale is incredibly important in the event of a major attack.?

IP challenges
Going to IP is not inexpensive, and prices vary widely.

Cisco?s contact center software starts at $395 per agent and can go as high as around $2,000. Fonality?s flagship PBXtra Call Center Edition is priced at $2,995 plus the number of phones needed and an additional server required for larger installations. Siemens? OpenScape Voice with a softphone starts at about $33,000 list, for 100 seats. An optional full UC application can cost around $400 per seat. Upgrading existing IP-suitable switches to PSTN, including adding IP-enabled new recording solutions can run $15,000/$18,000+.

You may also need to invest in your data network to give it the capacity and dependability to support IP. Your IT staff will also have to be trained on the new technology.

The IT team needs to be aware there is presently a slight but potential risk of spam, called SPIT, or spam over Internet telephony. There are easily implemented tools to limit SPIT if it becomes an issue.

IP systems have lead times that can run one to three months. There may be debugging, especially if there are other applications linked into it.

Another issue is voice quality. IP calls still on occasion do not sound as clear as those handled by PSTN as a result of voice packets arriving late or not in order. Yet these problems have been rapidly diminishing thanks to technology improvements.

Making IP happen
When looking and deciding on IP make sure you have solid, financially justifiable reasons for literally making the switch. PSTN-based phone systems typically have a 10- to 15-year lifespan. Yet if your switch and/or your contact center solutions are approaching end of life, you are experiencing high trunking costs and need functionality like UC, take a hard look at IP.

There are a great many information resources available. In your investigation, see if your present phone switch can be IP-enabled to enable gradual and cost-effective migration. If not, and there are strong benefits to going to IP, look at alternatives, including voice gateways to your data network or purchasing an IP telephony solution.

?Most modern systems allow for a slow migration path from the PSTN to IP,? explains Grigonis. ?Generally speaking, a ?forklift upgrade? to an entirely new system is not necessary.?

Bring on board the IT department from the start: from discussion to implementation. They can make a project like IP happen, and they are likely to, because many of these individuals like the technology.

Also, work closely with your suppliers. Many IP phone system vendors have professional services divisions that can advise and help with the transition process.

Ensure that the service quality is very high to maintain call connectivity and to avoid both delay and noise issues. Give yourself enough time to detect and kill bugs before going live. Also, have backup switches and servers.

A Tale of Two Transit Systems
IP telephony is suitable and is proving out well for smaller and larger transit systems alike. A combined case in point is the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA), which serves the Canton, Ohio area and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), also known as Cincinnati Metro or Metro.

SARTA?s IP Solution
SARTA manages its operations and services from four offices. It was facing how to cut costs on the lines linking its Gateway office with satellite offices in Alliance and Massillon, some 20 to 30 miles away, which were costing it about $500/month each; T1 charges are based per-mile. The contract with the local carrier that supplied them expired in summer 2008.

SARTA also has a T1 from Gateway to its Cornerstone main customer service contact center, but this is less of an issue, explains Information Systems Assistant Jeffrey Heimberger, because those costs are relatively low. The Gateway administrative office phone lines would also remain PSTN as there was no immediate benefit to changing them.

SARTA?s calls are handled by a Toshiba CIX 670 phone switch. Calls were sent to the other locations via MCK Extender boxes.

SARTA chose to convert the Alliance and Massillon lines to IP with a VPN and upgrade the Toshiba switch by adding an IP card to it so it can handle both communications media; it had been designed to support IP and PSTN. The agency would maintain two MCK Extenders: one at Cornerstone and one at Gateway.

SARTA installed an Oaisys Tracer 5 IP-enabled call recording solution as its older software could not support IP-transported calls. It also sought new functionality, such as allowing contact agents to review recordings to improve their own performance, adds Heimberger.

The entire IP and Tracer package cost approximately $18,000 and took about a month to install. The Tracer 5 solution required two to three months to fully deploy and debug as it was using new technology; install at the switch end was easy as Oaisys solution was pre-configured for the Toshiba unit.

The entire system is running well. While there are long-range plans to convert the Gateway office to IP, that is not on the immediate horizon.

?IP cut our trunking costs to $80/month each to Alliance and Massillon,? explains Heimberger. ?The cost savings enabled us to pay back the enabling investment in about 18 months. Having the Toshiba IP-ready and ready for the new Oaisys solution made going to IP easier and less expensive and indeed possible compared with going to another vendor. The IP route has sliced our expenses across the board.?

Metro?s ip solution
Metro?s voice network links its downtown administrative office with three garages, two for line-haul and one for paratransit. It also has two contact centers, one for general customer service located in its administrative facility and the other for paratransit reservations, situated at the respective garage.

By 2008 the phone system and its attendant contact center management, recording and voicemail software was becoming obsolete, complicated and increasingly less effective and functional, according to Tim Harrington, director of information technology.

The agency relied on five aging switches; the contact center management was actually two different applications on two separate routers. Call recording was carried out on three servers and switches at three of the four locations, which meant that some calls were being unlogged and not archived for future review in case there was an issue like a service complaint.

Metro also needed to reduce its branch communications costs. The agency is using T1 lines that are costing it $900 per month per garage. It also was facing down-the-road overhaul or replacement of its business phone system at its administrative offices and garages to give it more functionality and lower wiring and maintenance costs.
?We needed a solution that would upgrade the contact center management application and provide recording across the organization on one server,? says Harrington. ?We also needed to manage our voice trunking costs. And we wanted to maintain as much of our current phone system investment as possible to keep our capital expenses low, until we can justify their expenditures.?

Metro?s answer was to migrate to IP, beginning with the paratransit contact center, followed by the branch connections, and later for its main contact center and other offices as opposed to upgrading its PSTN-based systems. It replaced its PSTN-only switches, Nortel Option 11Cs, with three Nortel CS1000s that support both IP and PSTN, and shifted the voicemail system from the older Nortel Octel to its Call Pilot software. It deployed a CS1000E as its main system at the administrative office, plus at the two line-haul garages and a CS1000B at the paratransit garage.

The CS1000B supplies IP-transported calls to paratransit reservations agents. It also provides recording over both IP and PSTN for all Metro operations and offices.

The agency then implemented Nortel?s Symposium Express for contact center management. It provides new capabilities including skills-based call routing, monitoring and recording, and workforce management. It also configured the same Symposium solution to support both the paratransit and the general customer service contact centers.

The installation and cutover went smoothly over three months in spring 2008 and went live in June. This took longer than expected because it included moving the administrative office switch to the Metro?s new administrative office building.

?The biggest challenge we faced was cleaning up all of the documentation regarding the different phone switches,? recalls Harrington. ?The responsibility of the phone system changed hands over the last couple of years such that knowledge and documentation was not consistent. This new phone switch is more of a computer system and is now being managed by the IT department.?

The IP and call recording systems have been implemented smoothly, with no glitches. The contact center agents and the supervisors required less than two hours to get trained on and used to the new systems.

?The Symposium Express did prompt our contact center agents to arrive to their shifts on time and sharpen their performance,? says Harrington. ?The older system could not keep accurate track of their logins, which meant they could show up late and their supervisors would not know it, unless there was a surge in calls.?

Sometime in 2009 Cincinnati Metro will switch from PSTN T1s to IP VPNs. The garages will then migrate to IP as the data network wiring already exists. The agency hopes in the next few years to move the rest of its office voice handling to IP.

The IP project has cost approximately $250,000 with payback in four to five years. Metro is achieving this by cutting $40,000/year on line costs. It also obtained a $50,000 savings by not having to purchase additional contact center management software and a $20,000 reduction over buying new recording servers.

?Implementing IP-based telephony was, and is, a worthwhile endeavor for Metro,? concludes Harrington. ?The additional capabilities afforded, along with the consolidation of networks, for more flexibility in meeting the daily demands of the work force. This affords the IT department easier management of the converged voice and data network.?

Brendan B. Read is an author specializing in communications technology, contact centers/CRM, telework and transportation.

IP From Dialing to Receiving
Richard Grigonis, executive editor, Internet Telephony magazine, offers this step-by-step routing description of an IP call:

* An analog voice signal from a caller on a conventional PSTN phone is sampled and digitized by a digital signal processor or DSP or its equivalent into a pulse code modulation stream. Using conventional analog phones with a VoIP service typically involves plugging the phone into an analog telephone adapter that is plugged into the broadband modem (or into a router which is then plugged into the cable modem). Or you may be using an all-purpose ?residential gateway? that is voice-enabled with software. Actual IP phones such as an AASTRA can be plugged directly into your router or cable modem.

* The digitized voice signal is generally fashioned into high-level data link control) frames, compressed and integrated into voice packets.

* Each packet is given a ?header,? which contains the source and destination IP address.

* The packets are sent into the packet-switched network, where routers and switches read the addresses, guide the packets to their appropriate destination, ?hoping? from one network node (router) to another. The individual packets comprising the audio stream may take different routes from node to node over the network, since routers ?ping? each other periodically to determine which network paths are congested or open and each packet is forwarded along the ?best? route at that moment.

* Packets can arrive at their destination out of order with considerable delay. A transmission control protocol arranges them in the correct order at the termination point and ultimately the receiving hardware/software reconstitutes the audio that we recognize as conversation.