by CIO Staff

Listening to the VoIP Hype

Mar 20, 20067 mins

Company name:

The City of Jacksonville

The Problem: Standalone phone lines and aging systems made for hefty monthly phone bills alongside difficult and expensive repairs.

The Solution: Replace the old systems with a new VoIP network

The Vendors: Cisco, Qovia

Background: The City of Jacksonville was saddled with an antiquated, cobbled-together phone system. Some buildings, such as City Hall, had a multitude of standalone phone lines, which were expensive and difficult to manage. Some groups, such as police and fire stations, had smaller PBX key systems. But those systems were old: Equipment breakdowns required scrambles to locate the increasingly obsolete components, says Bobby Parrish, senior IT specialist for the City of Jacksonville. The decentralization and independence of the municipality was expensive: Monthly phone bills clocked in at $12,000 to $14,000 a month.

The Solution: In late 2001 Jacksonville made two city-altering decisions. First, it began laying plans for a new data network infrastructure that would interconnect the municipality’s 14 remote sites—including City Hall, the fire and police stations, recreational facilities and the public services department. Second, “smart people on the management team looked at a centralized management infrastructure for the telephone system,” says Parrish. After researching their options they chose a VoIP system by Cisco and later added the Qovia IP Telephony Manager.

The Implementation:Parrish did his research before choosing vendors, and Cisco ultimately won out. But he’s adamant that potential VoIP users need to examine every option before deciding. “We chose Cisco because of a comfort level. We’ve got trained technicians who are comfortable with Cisco’s data side, and so Cisco’s voice [system] was easier.” In other words, the implementation and configuration of a Cisco VoIP solution was much more seamless than it would have been with a different vendor. Parrish says that some solutions offer less expensive implementations than others, but that a lower-priced solution will offer fewer handset and administrative features. In sum, “Do your homework. All the major players have advantages and disadvantages.”

Parrish was lucky: The nearly simultaneous rollout of data network and VoIP system—which runs over the new network–defrayed costs and consolidated planning needs. From the initial network rollout during November 2001 until the VoIP system was live in April 2002, Parrish and his team encountered few snags. And the cost savings were immediate. “We’re not going to have to call the local phone provider or pay for a service call when Mary moves from one office to another. Now the user can pick the phone off the desk and walk across town and it’s like she never left,” says Parrish. VoIP also bypassed tolls, dramatically reducing long-distance charges. Monthly phone bills dropped between $9,000 and $11,000 per month. Perhaps most importantly VoIP allows phone systems to stay up and running during emergencies such as hurricanes, as long as you have uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and backup generators.

The Analyst’s Take:For successful VoIP implementation, you should first ensure that the LAN infrastructure can handle the traffic loads of whatever services the VoIP system is supporting (such as IP video, Web conferencing and so on), especially during peak traffic periods, both now and prospective, says Lisa Pierce, vice president of Forrester’s Telecom and Network’s research group. Pierce says Jacksonville’s fairly smooth rollout of VoIP is “unusual, because most people don’t do their homework thoroughly. More typical is example such as the City of Dallas, which thought it could buy the appropriate technology and run its own VoIP system but soon found itself unable to do so. It outsourced the day-to-day management of the system to SBC (now AT&T).

There’s no such thing as too much research, she says. When talking VoIP, there are many crucial factors, but there is one that stands out for Pierce: “Honestly, the most important thing comes down to how you’re going to manage it after it is installed and fully provisioned,” she says. She points out that VoIP technology does not work like traditional technology or standard IP. A common problem is that a company will test VoIP only with a small pilot group, and fully scaling the system overloads staff and drains limited financial resources. But a range of external sourcing options do exist—everything from project contractors to complete outsourcing.

Pierce notes that the City of Dallas outsourced the day-to-day management of its VoIP system to SBC (now AT&T). A crucial piece of such management, Pierce says, is the ability to monitor the system at the granular level, not just diagnose problems as they happen but keep a continuous scan going to head them off before they develop. VoIP requires a proactive approach to problem-solving, which may be an adjustment for those most familiar with reactive data network management.

Monitoring isn’t the only mindset shift required. Pierce says that most companies think of adopting VoIP as changing a protocol, and that’s a mistake. She says you must have people familiar with this technology; it “won’t cut it if you just know routers.” First thing is to take a hard look at how you are managing your phone systems today. Even for those running their own PBX and network of PBXs, don’t assume you can just run it yourself. A VoIP systems brings with it sweeping changes. Do extensive interviews with potential users to see what they need. Issue an RFI and gather up what different companies are saying they can do, and out of that create an RFP and scope it for how much will need to be outsourced.

Caveats:Jacksonville’s VoIP adoption was on the whole successful, but there were a few bugs. Trained staff is crucial for a successful VoIP rollout, an essential that can prove problematic. Parrish says VoIP is still a relatively new technology for many IT workers, who likely come from a data background. On the plus side, VoIP relies on data structure, and the cabling is the same. But telephony is different than data. “It’s related to the old telecom engineers and the types of things that they knew,” Parrish says. Staff may not be so familiar with voice signaling prototcols, type and rates of voice traffic, and how calls are routed. In addition, a successful VoIP system requires establishing priority of voice traffic over data traffic. Users might not notice dropped packets during a data transmission, but they will notice silence, echoes and dropped calls. This, Parrish says, is where a monitoring tool is crucial.

Checking that voice traffic has primacy over data and troubleshooting problems were basically impossible without a monitoring tool. In 2003, there were few offerings of such a tool, but at a Cisco conference Parrish happened on the Qovia IP Telephony Manager, which offers real-time live call quality management, troubleshooting and performance reporting. “If someone drops a call, we can figure out right away what the problem is,” says Parrish. With the IP Telephony Manager, Parrish can also troubleshoot short degradations in call quality and see exactly on the network where the problem occurs, as well as anticipate future problems.

Security and backup power are crucial to successful VoIP system. Security, Parrish says, is built in levels and you must take the time to implement features. The city of Jacksonville separates voice and data so rogue devices can’t can’t hack into the voice system, and he also has installed tools that detect and guard against rogue devices. He says that security is part of that initial network investment. No matter which hardware you buy you need people with the appropriate skills to configure the system. In addition, you must have UPS and generator backup. Those generators have proved crucial for emergency services during hurricanes, which previously could interrupt phone services with traditional phone systems.

Although Parrish revels in the City of Jacksonville’s move to VoIP, he agrees it is not for everyone. For example, both Parrish and Pierce say that for many, the cost of upgrading would overshadow the potential cost savings of VoIP, says Pierce. But both agree that for some, VoIP can live up to its hype.

Parrish’s VoIP essentials:

  • Research

  • A robust network

  • Trained staff

  • Granular monitoring software

  • Security precautions

  • Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS)

  • Generator backup