Back in 2000, upgrading a company network to a single IP (Internet Protocol) backbone would have made scant difference to the working lives of those on the network. But the ‘second generation’ of IP networks will bring the benefits of converged voice, data, video and email to every PC. Moving phone systems to voice over IP (VoIP) has now become the standard starting point for an IP upgrade, a move that is typically motivated by tangible cost savings. But a focus on costs alone can blind organisations to the wider productivity and efficiency gains of convergence.
Many newer capabilities, such as video conferencing, were available with older telecom systems. But putting everything onto IP dramatically lowers the cost and unifies all the applications onto the desktop PC.
Voicemail, for example, can be retrieved via email clients, and video conferencing can be backed up with shared access to presentations or documents for collaborative editing.
For common office arrangements, the idea of ‘presence’ has great appeal. Users can select whether or not they want to be contacted, and in what form, so calls can automatically be routed according to the selected rules. This reduces the number of business calls which fail to reach their intended recipient – up to 90%, according to AT&T.
“The benefit is in creating a fluidity to communication which has been lost over recent years,” says Tim Bishop, director of strategic marketing at Siemens Communications. “It’s really a struggle to get people together in most organisations.
The fact that communications technology has enabled the setup of long distance projects and collaboration has meant that the intimacy and immediacy you used to have doesn’t exist now.”
The development by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) of a new communications protocol, SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), provides some major new capabilities to converged IP networks. SIP merges IP traffic from different sources to one address, which can be used by whatever device individuals choose to access it from. Users are no longer tied to any one location, device or form of communication.
“As companies become more mobile and communication devices proliferate, the ability to reach others on a single attempt accelerates,” says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research. And that enables users to react in ‘real time’ to events, she adds. Suppliers and early users of converged
IP and SIP believe that integrating converged communication platforms with applications can squeeze more value and efficiency out of existing technology investments.
Customer relationship management software, for example, can be enhanced so it contains records and the content of calls.
There are benefits for the back office too: there may be only one network to manage, and the deployment and relocation of phones becomes easier. End users often see the benefits of convergence immediately, but security and quality of service require investment if managers are not to risk the possibility of lost connections and lost business.
Chosen platforms must also be able to expand, interoperate with partners’ systems and support emerging technologies.