Voice over IP (VoIP) is one of those technologies that has been a long time coming. Although it has been possible to packetise and route voice calls for at least a decade, fears over reliability and cost prevented most corporates from taking the risk.
But a few did push ahead. One was Lloyd's of London, the insurance brokers' market, which became one of the first large organisations to install a VoIP network in 2001. In doing so, Lloyd's became a high-profile test case, not just for uptime and quality, but also for measuring return on investment (ROI).
Is the project a success? The answer is unequivocal. Three years after deployment, feedback is enthusiastic and the projected £4 million ROI has been met.
"The business case was very financially compelling, which was the main driver in gaining executive commitment," says Chris Rawson, head of IT for Lloyd's.
The rollout, however, was not straightforward. A strict five month timeframe was imposed by the expiration date of the existing phone service contract. "Rolling it out to all the firms who use the Lloyd's buildings added a lot of complexity," says Rawson. "The timescale was very short."
Nevertheless, the system came in on time and on budget. Lloyd's primarily opted for Cisco products, with BT's services arm, Syntegra, assisting with the implementation. The initial outlay was budgeted at around £1.4 million. Being an early adopter and high-profile reference customer, Lloyd's "had the A-teams from each of the suppliers on site throughout", says Rawson.
"The way we rolled it out was by engaging an army of people to physically go round changing the equipment – recabling and moving of phones," says Rawson. "It was a nice way of engaging employees."
This was key to the whole operation. "The most important aspect is the customer – taking them on board and ensuring all the staff get training," he says. "We had a good commitment by a large number of people, but with hindsight not enough. [In future] I might be more insistent that all those affected were properly educated in advance."
Benefits and lessons As well as the additional support in the deployment stage, there were other benefits of being an early adopter of VoIP. The insurance industry is not well-known for its technological innovation, Rawson notes, but "it did do a lot for Lloyd's as a pioneer". Lloyd's also benefited from regular meetings with other blue-chip Cisco VoIP customers.
Internally, the benefits of a clear reduction in telephony costs were only the beginning. Thanks to the convergence of voice and data on the same network, voice engineers gained valuable skills in that area. But the most significant gains were for the end users. "There's no empirical evidence of productivity improvements, but anecdotally the simple telephone conferencing and desktop integration has received a lot of accolades from customers," says Rawson.
Now that the network has proven itself to be stable and reliable, Lloyd's has the confidence to look again at the latest generation of VoIP and consider further enhancements.