Telephone calls can cost a packet. National calls cost more than local calls and international calls even more. Any faxes that use the same voice telephone lines add even more to your bill. Of course voice line costs can be a lot lower than overall data communications costs but still be significant. Wouldn’t it be good if you could cut your voice telephone costs in half or even shrink the cost more dramatically?
IP telephony buffs say you can do this by using the Internet’s IP (Internet protocol) networking scheme as a medium to carry voice traffic (VOIP) as well as e-mail and Web pages. And it’s fast reaching the point of reality. As IT consultancy Ovum reports: “It is becoming possible to deliver high quality voice over an IP infrastructure.”
The benefit put forward by VOIP suppliers is that by combining your voice and data communications onto one network you can save money through reduced voice telephone line rental, simpler overall communications, improved communications administration efficiency and better network utilisation.
Claud Florin, business development manager for HP’s Telecom Infrastructure division, says: “We just use the data network and eject the expensive PABX and put voice on the data connection router.”
VOIP works best over private data lines. Voice over the Internet means poor voice quality due to Internet congestion and lost packets. There is no reliability with the public Internet. Gabriel Dusil, director of corporate strategy for Motorola’s Internet and Networking group which supplies IP telephony for internal calls over a LAN, says: “The key word is deterministic. With a private IP network we can determine delay, congestion and bandwidth utilisation. Users perceive IP voice quality to be the same as the telephone network.”
Early VOIP, and consumer IP telephony today, uses the Internet to carry the voice traffic. Call quality is spotty. The Internet is a less than reliable communications channel. It is much like the UK road system with packets of data traversing it in the same way as vehicles use the roads. The time for a packet or a vehicle to reach its destination can be longer or shorter depending on the other traffic. Imagine a conversation - - - with long - - - pauses - - - and delays like this. That is what poor quality IP telephony sounds like. When packets get lost en route then parts of the conversation can be lost as well.
But VOIP for business is different. VOIP is at the early adopter stage. HP’s Florin believes that, “European telcos are launching VOIP services beginning next year, especially with the launch of ADSL. They see voice as another data application now.”
Nextra is a European communications service provider which is rolling out VOIP services. Savings of over 30% are claimed for its Norwegian service. Per Bjork, Nextra’s chief technology officer, says, “Most companies typically have separate phone and data networks with completely different wire infrastructures, equipment and administrators. Nextra gives companies the ability to consolidate phone and data networks, and thereby significantly cut administration costs.”
It is time for manufacturing to examine VOIP. “The market no longer exists of just hobbyists making phone calls across the Internet,” asserts Bjork. “VOIP is a widespread reality. It is time for many companies to get on the VOIP learning curve with a pilot project of their own.” And he continues: “While price is the driving factor behind initial VOIP implementations, extending end-user features, such as voice mail, conference calling, combined inboxes and aggregated billing, are major long-term benefits of an IP-based phone network.”
HP’s Florin agrees that VOIP leads to better call functions: “The interface is much better with a PC-based call agent than the PABX. You can click on a screen display item to make a call or set up a conference.” However, Motorola’s Dusil thinks this single network idea was important four years ago but is now seen as naïve; “Voice isn’t run exclusively over the data network. You still have to speak to customers and suppliers who may not be connected to your private IP network. In today’s world everything is hybrid.”
For Dusil the main benefit is call charge cost savings, especially on national and international calls. “With our products the key benefit is the quick return on investment.”
So you might think that unless your manufacturing sites staff need to make lots of national and international calls, there isn’t so much call for IP Telephony. However a manufacturing site will often be connected to other company sites with fixed data communications lines between them. Simon Ryan, marketing manager for Honeywell Network Solutions, says, “Manufacturing has spare capacity on its data lines. The bandwidth suppliers build in up to 40% spare capacity.”
This means that there is capacity on the data line for carrying voice and thus saving money. The manufacturing site’s overall communications costs come down. Ryan points out that this isn’t Internet telephony: “The calls are going over a private IP network, not the general Internet – which is a million miles away in terms of quality of service.”
Ryan thinks that customers’ main concern, “Isn’t price. It’s quality of service.” With Honeywell’s IP telephony you pick up the phone and make your call; “The call quality and reliability is the same using the data comms links as it is with the voice phone system.”
Ryan understands that the data traffic isn’t constant and that an increased data load can cause contention. “It’s a priority issue then; voice or data. What you can do is switch the voice traffic at that point back on to the voice telephone system. We can do that with Cisco equipment. It is a mid-call real time switch that’s transparent to the telephone user with no loss of quality.”
The technology has evolved to the point where a voice link can be added to a Web page. If a manufacturing facility has a Web site for customers, suppliers or off-site company staff to query, review or enter manufacturing data then a voice link button could be placed on the Web page so that users could talk, over the Web link, to a manufacturing person. US supplier, Lipstream, offers such technology. CEO Matt Jones insists: “Easy-to-use customer service offerings are critical to a Web site’s success. Companies can now speak directly to customers [over the Web] and provide them with resolutions during a single interaction.”
Lipstream avoids quality of service problems by routing the voice traffic from the caller’s ISP over its own network, which is based on servers with “massive scalability,” thus bypassing the general Internet. Users view a Web page, press a screen button and then speak into a microphone attached to their PC. Jeremy Verba, president of US consultancy HearMe, says, “When you’re on a 56kbps connection, you bet it’s as good as a telephone call.”
Lipstream investor American Express is running a three month VOIP pilot in its call centre using a Web page voice link. Another investor is Compaq, and Quintus is a partner – so Lipstream could grow very quickly if voice-enabling Web pages takes off.
However, not all manufacturing suppliers are convinced about this. Neil Brooks, applications marketing manager for ERP (enterprise resource planning) software ant IT infrastructure giant Oracle, says, “We’re a bit mystified as to why people think IP telephony is that important. It seems like a technical decision not really related to delivering a better service.” If you want to deliver a better service to customers then put in a Web site, “to deal with typical questions and free up staff for the hard questions.”
Ultimately, VOIP is not yet proven for manufacturing. Manufacturing users examining VOIP need to talk to a supplier that can supply services and monitor the combined voice and data links, according to Honeywell’s Ryan, and ensure that the links are available and that bandwidth is sufficient. The system also needs to detect when bandwidth contention is going to occur and switch voice traffic back onto POTS – the plain old telephone system.
Motorola’s Dusil says a supplier should also be experienced. His company’s competitive advantage lies in its high voice quality for IP calls and in its six years experience of implementing multi-service networks. HP’s Florin thinks value added functionality is the important factor. Manufacturers should think about “voice-enabling vertical applications such as MRP. You could add ‘Netmeeting’ to it” and so gain a valuable conferencing function.
If the VOIP converts have their way then, for manufacturing as for other sectors, voice becomes just another form of data communications. All forms of electronic communication will use the IP protocol. Ovum believes: “Soon, the distinction between voice, data, video, Internet and Intelligent Network services will be rendered irrelevant … IP offers a brave new world of telecoms.” However, manufacturing businesses need to be convinced that VOIP is cost-effective before entering that brave new world.
Be certain that you are going to save a packet before spending one.
- So what exactly is VOIP?
How is VOIP done? It is the reverse of a manufacturing process in a way. You take the finished product – speech – break it into bits by sampling its values at high speed and give each sample a digital rating, then send the digital ratings across the Internet or other IP network in packets just like e-mail data. At the other end of the line the packetised speech data is reassembled into continuous speech and played out through the computer’s sound card or an attached phone. Any standard PC sound card can do this.
The phone system PABX can have a VOIP gateway that packetises speech received by a telephone handset. Alternatively a PC can be fitted with a microphone and soundcard, such as a Soundblaster compatible, and do the job.
- Hanson Quarry digs deep
Hanson Quarry Products Group is a Motorola customer and has 300 sites across Europe. It sends asynchronous, frame relay, video and VOIP traffic over the same network. The company plans to send all its internal telephone calls as VOIP packets across the network by the middle of the year. Regional branch VOIP pilots have been successful and Hanson predicts savings of £250,000 a year.
Paul Mullens, project manager at Motorola partner EAE Systems, points out that Hanson could also reduce its external call costs, “by routing long distance calls over the network as VOIP packets to the Hanson office nearest the call destination and then connect to the carrier’s local loop. This means that they would just pay for the local call.”