In case you didn't make it to Olympia last month for the VoIP for Business 2007 show, Ross Bentley has the lowdown on telephone system technology
An increasing number of businesses are moving towards a converged network model, where telephone and computer systems are brought together on to one network, driven by internet protocol, now the standard mechanism for moving voice, data and video over the internet.
There's a revolution going on in the technology that sits behind your telephone system. And as it becomes established, calls will become cheaper, the functionality of your phone enhanced and customer service to guest rooms greatly improved.
Whereas traditionally telephone systems have stood alone, today an increasing number of businesses are moving towards a converged network model, where telephone and computer systems are brought together on to one network. Driving this trend is internet protocol or IP, a technology now firmly established as the standard mechanism for moving all traffic, be it voice - known as voice over IP or VoIP - data or video over the internet and around businesses.
Details of how leisure and hospitality companies are embracing this brave new world were available at the Olympia exhibition hall last month as the main communication industry players congregated for the VoIP for Business 2007 show.
Communications consultancy Telinet, for example, was publicising some work it had carried out recently for activity holidays provider Mark Warner. Like virtually all companies migrating to VoIP, Mark Warner wanted to do it gradually. It installed a Mitel 3300 IP PBX switch, which provides VoIP capability but can also direct calls through the old phone exchange, allowing Mark Warner to make the transition to VoIP over time.
Initial benefits, according to Telinet spokeswoman Jen Farrant, are cheaper calls between the Mark Warner sites. 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. This means calls become free and the only cost is the leasing of the VPN line.
The mobility of workers has also been improved, says Farrant, because through VoIP all users need to make a phone call is a laptop with some software on it and a headset. Regardless of where they are, employees connect to the company network, their IP address is recognised and they're free to start making calls.
In the converged world, as VoIP traffic essentially becomes just another piece of data on the network, there's also the opportunity to integrate numerous applications.
This was particularly evident in the call centre products available at Olympia. One of the leading providers of IP solutions in this space is Avaya (www.avaya.com), which also had a large stand at the show. Starwood Hotels & Resorts last year deployed the Avaya IP telephony platform for its new contact centre in Cork, Ireland.
Around the world
The new solution routes calls from around the world to 400 multilingual, multiskilled agents on the basis of their skills level and the call's origin. So, for example, if a call is of French origin the system will automatically recognise the number and route it to an agent who speaks French. And if a caller selects the room-booking option on the voice menu, the call will be routed to an agent qualified to deal with that request.
But for VoIP to work effectively it must be given priority over other data on the network. Users won't mind if an e-mail is delayed by a few seconds, but it's unacceptable for a conversation to be patchy and interrupted.
Psytechnics, a software company that enables telecommunications providers to monitor and test the quality of their voice and video services, offers services in this space. According to European director Clive Spanswick, complex diagnostics are involved to ensure voice traffic retains its quality of service. "We monitor not only the IP performance on the network but also the waveforms of the voice traffic," he says.
Another trend in the VoIP world that will be of interest to the hospitality sector is the emergence of dual-mode phones. Broadband specialist Zyxel unveiled its wireless dual-mode phone at the show, which incorporates Skype software and enables users to make VoIP calls via Wi-Fi connections as well as calls across standard GSM mobile networks.
At mobile messaging provider AQL, managing director Adam Beaumont says mobile VoIP services are ideal for frequent travellers wanting to use their phone abroad as they can avoid roaming charges by mobile network operators. AQL operates a mobile VoIP service for people with Nokia E-series handsets that also contain wireless chips. "As most good hotels now have Wi-Fi connectivity, mobile users will have the potential to call home free from wherever they are in the world," he says.
IP telephony in hotels
According to Ian Bevington, a hospitality specialist at telecommunications company Mitel, innovation in the use of IP telephony in the hotel sector is happening in the luxury and boutique areas of the market.
"These are the guys who are using IP telephony to wow their guests," he says. Bevington says the full benefits of IP telephony can be realised only when hotels have structured network cabling running to each room. At this point it's possible to treat voice as another application and to set up rules that dictate what services are available to which guests.
Hotels are using high-end IP phones with digital displays to flag up special offers from within the hotel, such as a restaurant booking or a massage, which guests can accept with the press of the button. This is then displayed on the phone as part of the daily schedule.
Some hotels are even using their IP phones to offer special deals from outside the hotel, such as pizza delivery and taxi services, which correspond to a speed-dial button.
Repeat guests who have built up a profile with a hotel group can have their speed-dial preferences automatically set up on the phone the moment they check in. For preferred guests with special privileges, any call from their phone can be given priority on the network and will be dealt with first.
IP telephony also makes it easier for data to be collected on how long it takes to answer calls and what parts of the day are particularly busy or uneventful.
"This information can be useful in staff rostering and planning," says Bevington.
• VoIP (voice over internet protocol) is the technology used to manage the delivery of voice information over the internet. VoIP involves sending voice information in digital form in discrete packets.
• IP telephony (internet protocol telephony) is a general term for the technologies that use the internet protocol's packet-switched connections to exchange voice, fax and other forms of information that have traditionally been carried over the dedicated circuit-switched connections of the public switched telephone network (PSTN).
• Converged network is a network that carries voice, video and data traffic. Converged networks have emerged as businesses need to reduce administrative costs and provide more flexible application deployments.
• An IP PBX is a private branch exchange (telephone switching system within an organisation) that switches calls between users. A typical IP PBX can also switch calls between a VoIP user and a traditional telephone user, or between two traditional telephone users.
• A virtual private network (VPN) is a private communications network often enhanced with security measures such as firewalls and encryption, which companies use to communicate confidentially over a public network.