Internet-based technologies are transforming our use of telephones and drastically reducing the cost of making voice calls as an increasing number of hospitality businesses move towards a "converged" network model, where telephone and computer systems are brought together on one network.
The technology driving this trend is internet protocol, or IP, which is now firmly established as the dominant mechanism for moving voice and data traffic around the internet.
Earlier this year technology analyst Gartner predicted 90% of all new corporate telephone systems would be IP-enabled by 2008. And BT recently announced it was upgrading its network to a totally IP-based system. Labelled the 21CN (21st-century network), the new network is expected to take five years to complete at a cost of about £10b.
And it's not just about the big boys, either. According to Steve Nicolaou, account manager at Open Telecoms, converged IP systems are suitable for all but the smallest of businesses. IP equipment provider Mitel, for example, has recently launched a system with only 20 users to support smaller companies.
The widespread adoption of broadband has also allowed companies with multiple sites or a home-working policy to adopt voice over IP (VoIP). Home working and "hot desking" are made easier using VoIP because, in the converged world, an IP phone becomes another device like a laptop or a printer: employees just plug in; the network recognises their IP address; and they are free to start making calls.
Aside from providing this flexibility, businesses are adopting VoIP to reduce costs. As Don Proctor, general manager of the voice technology group at networking company Cisco Systems, explains, with convergence there is only one set of cables and hardware to install and maintain, so there are cost savings to be had straight away. Meanwhile, IT departments are increasingly taking over the administration of telecoms systems, saving businesses expensive charges from telecoms companies.
Then there are the cheaper calls. As VoIP runs over the internet, firms making calls between offices can circumnavigate the standard PSTN (public switch telephone network) by directing voice traffic via a virtual private network (VPN) internet connection. In short, this means calls become free of charge and the only cost is the leasing of the VPN line.
Although the IP handsets required to make and receive VoIP calls are more expensive than traditional phones, the long-term savings can be substantial. Technology firm Siemens calculates the average business can reduce its annual phone bill by 31% through IP trunking.
Many regular consumers have already cottoned on to this and have signed up to companies such as Skype and Net2Phone to make cheap international phone calls over the internet. Although Nicolaou reckons these types of services may not be reliable enough to support businesses just yet, Skype, which has 37 million subscribers worldwide, is due to launch a business version later this year.
With the merging of voice and data, businesses are also embracing the brave new world of unified messaging, where users have one inbox for e-mail, voice mail and video clips. Combined with advances in text-to-voice software, this means that people can phone their inbox and have e-mails read to them electronically, and reply in the same way.
Organisations considering adopting VoIP must ensure they have an appropriate switch or phone exchange installed that supports IP. Traditional TDM (time division multiplexing) analogue switches, which have been available for the past 20 years or so, are not appropriate for use in a converged network, as they do not support IP telephony. But in many cases it is possible to create a converged network using elements of an existing TDM infrastructure by incorporating an IP-enabled or hybrid switch.
According to Andy Clemens, marketing manager at BT Business, hybrid switches are the appropriate choice for many smaller businesses, as they are more flexible, being designed to offer the full functionality of TDM switches but with the architecture to support IP-based telephony when organisations are ready. However, Mike Valiant, international market development manager for enterprise voice solutions at 3Com, warns that simply "belting on" IP-enabled switches to an existing platform could lead to problems with some applications, as well as network scalability as a company moves towards full IP telephony (IPT) down the line.
Many of the businesses that have so far committed to full-blown IPT have done so as part of a move to a greenfield site where they have had to start from scratch. This was the case when Open Telecoms installed an IP network from Mitel at the Grove, a 277-bedroom country club and hotel in Berkshire. It was the first time the building had been used for full-blown hospitality purposes, so the owners were choosing a telephone system for the first time.
As more companies adopt converged networks, analysts predict we will see an increasing number of applications that make use of this close association between voice and data. One clever use of the technology has been implemented by the Wynn Las Vegas Resort and Country Club, a 2,698-bedroom property that opened earlier this year. The hotel has linked its IP screen phones up to the digital closed-circuit television cameras in the casino below, allowing guests to see if a poker table is free from a screen on their phone. According to Lou D'Ambrosia, group vice-president of Avaya, the technology company that supplied the phones, "This is the ultimate guest experience and the future for hotel service."
IP ideas at the Dorchester
At the Dorchester hotel in London, the group's IT director, ,Luke Mellors, is mulling over the potential of IP and considering applications that, for example, automatically draw open the curtains as the wake-up call comes through. "With IP, the technology is there. It just needs the creativity to see how it can be applied," he says.
Mellors, a self-confessed lover of new technology, says he is considering a range of ideas with the "wow factor", from applicatiions that combine a telephone wake-up call with turning on the television to show a pre-chosen web page or TV programme, to phone services that allow members of a group staying in different rooms to get immediate access to each other's extension numbers.
He is also in advanced talks to install IP television services which will enable more than 1,000 channels from across the globe to be streamed over the internet into guest rooms.
"Whether guests have arrived from America, Russia or the Middle East, we want them to feel at home," says Mellor.
VoIP pros and cons
- Cheaper voice calls
- Businesses need to maintain onl;y one network
- Flexibility for "hot-desk" and home working
- Enables businesses to combine applications with voice services
- Will "future-proof" your systems, as it's the way the industry is heading.
- Suits businesses of all sizes
- Expensive initial outlay on IP switches, phones and cabling
- IT people need to start understanding how telecoms work
- Fear of a new technology
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