Spring, 2010

Vol. 14, No. 1

 

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Navigating Today’s Complex Voice Roadmap

 

Mark Katsouros

The University of Iowa

 

 

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The author’s desk (How many “phones” do you count?  )

 

Quality Versus Quantity, or Vice Versa?

 

There’s no doubt about it—voice is at a crossroads, and which path(s) to take is anything but obvious.  One of the main reasons for this is a shift in the general thinking on quality versus quantity.  As recently as a decade ago, anything less than “five nines” for enterprise communications reliability/quality was unacceptable.  The phone had to work, and it had to work well.  How else could we reliably communicate with colleagues and customers?  And how else could we ensure that we had the ability to place emergency (911) calls?

 

Fast-forward to the present day.  First, our voice quality expectations and senses have been dumbed down by our cellular phones and early Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) experiences.  Dropped calls and less-than-crystal-clear call quality have practically become acceptable.  Why?  Not only because we’ve simply gotten used to them, but also because we have so many more communication options at our fingertips than we had previously.  IP phone getting jittery?  Take your cell phone out of its holster.  Cellular signal strength no good?  Make a Skype call, use email or IM, write on a Facebook wall, or send a direct “tweet.”  This vast quantity of available communication options has negated our quality issues/fears and, thus, created a new expectation, especially in these economically challenging times…

 

Squeeze the Costs Out of Enterprise Voice

 

In the early days of VoIP, toll bypass was all the rage.  Using the Internet to transport voice meant avoiding those high-cost long-distance fees from the phone companies.  But long-distance rates have plummeted, to the point that they’re approaching zero, at least on the domestic side, and landline carriers, for the most part, have adopted the cellular billing model—domestic long distance included in one monthly fee.  Sure, global companies can realize some savings with IP-enabled least-cost routing, but the real savings can be broken down into two big categories:

 

Savings Category #1:  Single Infrastructure

 

The savings that can be achieved by delivering all communication services over a single, IP infrastructure are huge.  Not only can you now build just one communications infrastructure for new construction (no more outside copper), but you also have just one to manage, maintain, and sustain.  This ripples through to staffing/knowledge requirements as well, so your overall capital and operational burdens are significantly reduced.  Yes, this undoubtedly means more investment in that single IP infrastructure (towards greater capacity, fault tolerance, virtual isolation, and so on), but these costs are expected anyway, as more and more mission-critical services are delivered over IP.  Some might express fears that this single IP infrastructure now becomes a single point of failure, but the cellular infrastructure can serve as a reasonable backup for both voice and data (3G/4G).

 

Savings Category #2:  Customer Self-Service

 

This “feature” of IP-based telephony is often overlooked when assessing the overall costs of providing voice service, but it shouldn’t be.  IP phones, by their very nature, are portable devices—they can be moved, for the most part, from network port to network port with little if any configuration, much like computers can.  And feature configurations (from coverage groups/paths to custom, variable ringtones) can potentially be accessed and modified by the end user.  Essentially, end users can self-provision their voice service, performing their own MACs—moves, adds (at least on the physical “install” side), and changes.  This is hugely significant, when one considers the high costs of telephony “field work,” and configuration work, that the enterprise funds as a whole.  And, of course, “soft phones” (phones implemented entirely as a software application on your multi-media computers) make the savings in this category, and the overall equipment savings, even more obvious.

 

“But Wait, There’s More!”

 

There are other significant areas of savings as well.  Standard protocols like the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) enable greater interoperability, fewer single-vendor dependencies, and less-expensive endpoints.  They can also provide economies on the carrier side.  SIP trunking, for instance, provides like benefits on a wide-area scale.

 

New productivity features can also be realized.  Living on the same infrastructure, and speaking the same “language” (IP), as the rest of your information technology services allows for tremendous integration.  “Killer apps” of all kinds (from more tightly integrated identity management, user directories, and call logs, to general database integration, location-based services, and rich media experiences) are now much more possible, enhancing overall enterprise efficiency, productivity, and security, and your ability to deliver top-notch customer service.  Group (multi-point) communication is also likely significantly enhanced.  Finally, it’s important to realize that the market has shifted so much in the direction of IP, that even the traditional vendors in the voice space are no longer developing these enhanced feature sets for legacy telephony.  In many cases, they simply wouldn’t be possible anyway.

 

The Promise of “The Killer App(s)”

 

It is almost impossible to discuss IP-based telephony and converged communications in general without eventually arriving at applications—the very things that this convergence of technologies and platforms enables.  Specifically, there’s that Holy Grail of an application long referred to as “The Killer App.”  But what is the killer app?  Is there one that rises above all the rest?  There doesn’t seem to be, but more so because there are just so many of them versus none that qualify.  Here are four in particular that are revolutionizing the way we work, providing greater effectiveness, efficiency, and scope, and further enhancing our ability to communicate and collaborate:

 

Killer App #1:  Unified Messaging

 

Many people in today’s workforce would tell you that voice mail is dead—an archaic messaging mechanism that’s too hard to access, and too untimely in its delivery.  But unified messaging, especially its newly evolved set of features, may be creating a renaissance of appreciation for its acceptance and importance.  Most would agree that the tone of a text or email message is more likely to be misconstrued than that of a voice, or video, message.  But, at least until recently, that hasn’t been enough to counter the aforementioned access and timeliness issues.  Enter Unified Messaging (UM).  With UM, voice mail is as accessible, searchable, and “categorizable” as email, because it ends up in the same place as your email, i.e., your inbox.  And, with the sophisticated speech-to-text transcription that some UM solutions include, or have on their feature roadmaps, one can literally “see” into the audio files (particularly handy while checking email during a meeting), search and filter on their content, and so on.  Unified messaging brings together the richer experience of an audio message with all the benefits of the email paradigm.

 

Killer App #2:  Mobility

 

The power of mobility hardly needs to be explained.  Mobility is an absolute necessity, as is the requirement for customers and colleagues to reach anyone at anytime, anywhere.  Our campus communities are particularly mobile, but also particularly in need of staying connected.  Fortunately, as our multi-media computers have become more portable (from desktop to laptop to netbook), so too have they enabled more mobile communication options in a converged environment.  Now your soft phone can travel with you, especially with the global march towards ubiquitous Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11) and WiMAX (IEEE 802.16) wireless coverage.  Yet, to customers and colleagues, it’s as if you’re sitting at your desk, waiting to take their call.

 

Killer App #3:  Presence

 

So, with all of this mobility (and seemingly unlimited access to people), how do we keep “pervasive” from becoming “invasive?”  One way is with the etiquette that intuitively accompanies the knowledge of “presence. “  Presence is your advertised whereabouts or status, e.g., on the phone, in a meeting, heavy in thought, available to chat, etc.  Using a smart combination of computer activity monitoring, calendar integration, and explicit settings, presence can make your location and/or your availability obvious to those who you authorize to see this information.  Technologies like GPS (the Global Positioning System) and radio-frequency identification (RFID) make the notion of presence even more automatic, exact, and integrated.

 

Killer App #4:  Federation

 

Identity federation via SIP/SIMPLE (Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) is a huge enabler of communication and collaboration of the higher-ed kind—that is, across multiple IT systems, service providers, and, of utmost importance, institutions.  With most modern IP-based voice systems, end users are required to authenticate (essentially log in) to access “dial tone,” obtain their net-stored service parameters and features, provide updated presence information, and so on.  By exchanging SIP domains and a few other system parameters, users from different institutions can securely communicate and collaborate as if they were on the same campus and even right down the hall from each other.  From presence sharing to voice communications, federation helps make higher education’s goal of global collaboration a reality.

 

“The Cloud”

 

It is often said that everything is cyclical, and telephony is no exception.  Cloud telephony is much like the old Centrex phone service, only it is not your father’s Centrex.  (Cloud telephony is obviously IP-based, is quick and easy to deploy, and uses standardized systems and applications.)  And, like “outsourcing” phone service à la Centrex, moving voice to the cloud (essentially offloading what has become a computing resource from on-premises to Internet-hosted) has some advantages—mainly that the provisioning, operating, and maintaining of what many see as a commodity service is handled by someone else, allowing you to focus on your core business.  However, therein lies a dilemma:  Most in higher ed see communication and collaboration as major components of their core business and mission.  Moving voice to the cloud potentially limits your ability to tie it together with all the other aspects of that communication and collaboration.  And, as fast as this genre of technology is changing, there will likely be significant challenges in integrating cloud-based voice services with in-house collaboration resources.

 

There are also potential concerns with security, availability, and performance.  The first may be debatable, as some might confuse control with security, not that they aren’t related.  But, as new technologies like HD audio come into play, the latter two become even more significant.  Perhaps most importantly, there would likely be difficulty in bringing voice applications and systems back in-house as the cyclical nature of communication services runs its course.

 

The migration from Centrex to PBXs that began decades ago was mostly sparked because of the inefficiency and real-dollar costs of routing every call to the Central Office (even those placed to others within the enterprise, arguably the most common calls).  Cloud telephony, to some extent, does the same thing.  So whether or not the pros outweigh the cons is about as clear as a cloudy day.

 

Conclusions

 

Navigating today’s complex voice roadmap is not easy.  There are clearly advantages and opportunities with providing voice service as one of a set of integrated applications delivered over IP.  IP-based delivery is essential for effective and efficient voice service provisioning, especially to the highly mobile and diverse communities of higher ed.  Software-centric solutions provide further means of application integration, cost-savings, and flexibility.

 

Keeping the control of this evolving technology close at hand is critical towards being able to integrate with other in-house collaboration and location-based services, from calendaring to course/learning management to integrated security to RFID to simulations and virtual worlds to social networking.

 

SIP-based federation enables core aspects of communication and collaboration, from messaging to presence, to take place between our higher-ed institutions, fulfilling our collective goal of working together towards global problem-solving.

 

Recognizing that communication and collaboration are essential for supporting the core mission of our higher-ed institutions is critically important towards taking the right path, and creating the optimal environment for teaching and learning, research, and innovation.

 

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Mark Katsouros is the Director of Telecommunication & Network Services at the University of Iowa.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they probably should be.