VOIP Connects Workers as They Flee Convention Site

By Ellen Muraskin  |  Posted 2004-08-27

VOIP Connects Workers as They Flee Convention Site

Lets review: Why is IP telephony relatively indifferent to physical location? Because the IP telephony server, whether an in-house IP PBX or the softswitch of your VOIP service provider, maps your public "phone" number to the IP address you log in with, every time you log on, or every time you activate the phone that logs on for you.

And why is this a good thing? Because you can take your IP phone or the soft phone running on your laptop, plug it in to any broadband tap, and have an extension to a shared, Centrex-style or dedicated enterprise phone system. The server/softswitch registers your new IP address and can take calls from you or send them to you, just the way an IM server sends IM messages wherever you log in.

And why is this a good thing for businesses? Because their remote workers can work wherever they like, as long as theres broadband and a VOIP-accommodating firewall.

And why is this an especially good thing this week for Infinity Consulting Group, an IT services firm with an office on West 31st Street in Manhattan? Because Infinity Consultings New York office is across the street from Madison Square Garden, where this week the Republican National Convention—and its attendant battalions of security forces, not to mention protestors—will make navigating everyday New York congestion look like a luge run.

Infinitys 25 midtown Manhattan employees, subscribers to M5 Networks VOIP Centrex service, are going to take their Cisco 7960 IP phones and get out of town, just like the New Yorkers whove been hoarding their vacation days all summer for the chance to be someplace else.

But Infinitys employees are not running for the mountains or the shore: Theyre decamping to temporary office space and home offices in the outer boroughs and New Jersey. "Im not even sure my super is coming in to let us in the building," says Lou Forino, CEO at Infinity.

With his business applications remotely accessible through Windows Terminal Services, his e-mail through Outlook Web Access and his phone service uninterrupted, Forino is counting on callers to not notice the difference. M5s VocalData softswitch will get those calls from the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) and route them to employees as before, dispersed though they might be.

Some of Forinos employees will take their desktop phones and plug them into home DSL or cable lines; basic 3COM routers have been provided to those whove never had to split their broadband connection before. Some employees, bunking in the New Jersey office, will merely log themselves in to spare Cisco phones and will have their phones personality (speed dials, directory, etc.) downloaded to the phone.

Infinitys receptionist, with a phone in her Brooklyn home, will answer the main number as before (if shes too busy, the auto attendant will do it, as usual) and use the drag-and-drop interface on the M5s Web-accessible GUI to transfer calls. "The only difference is, she wont be able to look over and see if someone is actually in his office," Forino says. On-hold music should play on.

Since its running off M5s centralized platform, so should auto attendant, voice mail and dial-by-name. Incoming calls to tech support, recruiters and other hunt groups should continue to ring all phones assigned to that group simultaneously. Voice-mail message lights should light.

Click here to read about a derailed VOIP project at Dow Chemical, Ciscos poster child of large-scale VOIP deployment.

Its this indifference to physical location that attracted Forino to New York-based M5, and to VOIP in the first place. He wanted to unify offices in different Manhattan and New Jersey locations. He switched from an on-premises Norstar phone system and RBOC (regional Bell operating company) service about eight months ago, he says. And hes trialing a few IP phones in the companys Laurel, Md., and Chicago offices, too.

Forino says he saves $500 to $1,000 a month in calling costs, and having purchased the phones outright from M5, he gets the service started for far less than the $20,000 it would have cost him to buy an adequate voice-mail system. M5 also supplies the New York office with a T-1 and a backup DSL line.

Other offices connect via "business-class" SDSL, through other providers. M5 is also Infinitys ISP. "Because theres so much room in these lines, its very effective to add Internet service as a bundle," says Dan Hoffman, president of M5.

Next Page: PBX features made easy.

PBX Features

The service has allowed Forino to give every employee a personal direct-inward-dial number for the first time—more cheaply, he says, than it would have been through his previous provider. Its also made it easier, through the phones screen displays and soft keys, to use a lot of features that remain a black art on old digital PBX extensions.

"We have a lot of computer-savvy people here, but getting them to transfer calls on the old PBX was a nightmare," Forino says.

Now, employees use the phones to transfer and conference calls, to forward calls to home phones or cell phones, and to use cell-phone-like dialing advances such as last-10 phone numbers called or received. While browser-based phone control is an added option with M5, Infinity hasnt seen the need for it, except for its receptionist.

To read more about how its raining VOIP service providers, click here.

The company does, however, want to take advantage of the 7950s TAPI (Windows Telephone API) compatibility to launch customer service and sales calls out of contact manager software; this is a planned integration between PC software and phone. Made to dial through TAPI, the phone then communicates with M5s softswitch to complete the call to the PSTN.

Speaking off-site through a noisy cell phone connection, Forino rates M5s voice quality as "very similar to POTS" (plain old telephone service). "In general, Im very pleased with it."

M5s Hoffman adds that three-quarters of his own company, on West 26th Street, is working remotely as well during RNC week, as three-quarters of his 300 business customers do routinely. Does M5 need to know about it when its customers extensions skip town?

"Yes, because we need to disable [or presumably update] E911 functionality," he says. Otherwise, in Infinity Consultings case, a distress call from the IP phone in Brooklyn would send emergency service personnel rushing to midtown Manhattan—a place they probably wish they could avoid this week as well.

Check out eWEEK.coms VOIP & Telephony Center at http://voip.eweek.com for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.

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