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Why IP telephony is about more than just saving money
The winning arguments
In the last few years IP-based voice communication has increasingly come to the attention of business managers.
Internet-based voice communication has been around for years in a number of forms, some hideously cranky and others very effective.
My personal watershed in the credibility of long-distance IP voice comms was Microsoft's multi-billion dollar purchase of Skype in 2011. With that action Microsoft said to the world: IP voice (and video) can be a real commercial success, and we are going to make a fortune from it.
It was, of course, not a new concept for us techies. We had been doing IP voice for years, particularly within the corporate network. But it did mean that business managers started asking people like me: “Everyone is saying how cheap this stuff is. Why can't we do it and save a packet?”
In fact there are far more reasons for moving to IP voice in the business than just saving some cash.
Nothing to lose but your chains
How does a mobile phone work? Well, it contains a little chip called a subscriber identity module (SIM) that uniquely identifies your account.
When the phone fires up it talks to the networks it can see. If one of them is your own service provider's network, or if you are roaming and your service provider has an agreement with at least one of the networks in the country you are in, the handset will forge a connection through the network. Your provider's switch will know where you are and how to route calls to you.
Landline phones don't work like that. If you want to move one, you have to ask your telco to move the line, or at least re-route your number manually. Likewise if you move office.
Unless, of course, you use an IP-based solution, which at the highest level works in precisely the same way as the mobile example. As long as your IP phone is able to connect over the internet to its home base, your office phone system just sees it as a handset it knows about. It neither knows nor cares where you actually are.
Your IP phone could well be a physical phone. I once implemented a solution for a travel company where we posted each regional manager a phone and a router and they hooked into our system via the internet. But it could equally be a “softphone”: an application on a computer, tablet or smartphone.
So reason number one is complete location independence and portability so long as you can satisfy basic connectivity requirements.
Look, no phone
Glance at your business card. It probably gives your job title, email address, landline number, fax number, mobile number, address and so on. In one of my jobs my mobile number and landline direct-dial were identical except for the area code, which made them easier to remember.
Particularly cool was that we had a Mitel 3300 phone system with External HotDesk licences. If I was on my desk phone I could prod a softkey on the phone and the call would hop to my mobile, which meant I could wander off and keep talking.
The reverse applied: prod 5 on the mobile and the call would drop back to the desk phone. The call interchange took place through the phone lines and 3G mobile network.
Why not have two, three or four phones associated with your persona?
With IP telephony, though, you can take this to extremes. Why not have two, three or four phones associated with your persona and let them all log in via whatever network they have available?
When someone calls you, any or all of your devices can ring and you can answer the call on whichever you prefer, subsequently shipping the call from device to device on demand.
I am hoping you are now thinking: “Hang on, he said ‘when someone calls you’, but what number are they calling you on?”
The number they are calling you on is your number. They are not calling you on your desk phone or on your mobile. They are calling you on your only number.
That said, if you have had a proper lightbulb moment you should be thinking: “Who needs a number?”
I have a location-independent identity that people use all the time to communicate with me via other means, so why shouldn't people who email me on email@example.com also be able to phone or videocall call me on firstname.lastname@example.org?
And in fact the technology allows you to do precisely this. The only drawback is that you have to deal with people who can only use boring old phones to call you, so you want to combine funky identity-based IP calling with a single traditional phone number to which you can connect your various IP telephony devices.
Motivation number two, then: a single phone number for multiple devices, and even a single identity overall for people who also have that capability.
When my phone system used to ship calls between my mobile and my desk phone over the public phone network it didn't cost me anything so long I was in my home country. My contract with the phone company gave me free calls between my mobile and landline numbers. If I was roaming, however, it was different.
What I could have done was install an IP voice app on the mobile and register it as an extension on the phone system. That way I could use a Starbuck's Wi-Fi connection in Philadelphia and chat to my heart's content knowing that it wasn't costing a bean.
Even better was the arrangement we had with one of the more forward-thinking mobile vendors in the US. Our American staff could come to see us Limeys and connect natively with their handsets (no special IP client required) to their home provider via the Wi-Fi network using UMA.
Whatever the situation, IP telephony is cheaper than using the phone network. When you step outside your home network and use IP instead of cellular roaming, it is a shedload cheaper.
Do you get the occasional drop-out and does your boss sometimes sound like a Dalek? Yes, maybe. Is it worth it for the four- or five-figure annual savings that a medium-sized company can make? Absolutely.
Motivation number three: it is cheaper. Much cheaper.
Reasons to be cheerful
Traditional telephones had necessary restrictions. In the 1970s if you wanted a phone your telco would run a bit of wire from its exchange to your home or office and connect you. When phones went digital the same applied.
It is easy to get tunnel vision and amble on with what you have been doing even though you don't necessarily have to.
I once worked on a project to replace an end-of-life phone system. I surveyed the users extensively to see what they wanted from the new system and ended up with a sizeable list of features, all but one of which the old system could do.
That wasn't the users' fault. They interpreted the question “What do you want?” as “What features do you use all the time and can't live without?”
I should have been more proactive and said: “Forget what you have now and don't worry about what might or might not be possible. Tell me what you'd really like the new system to do.”
We are in that place now with IP voice. The core business motivations are simple.
- There are no constraints any more: you can be truly global and run a unified telephony world even if you are a small company with little to spend.
- You can already present your identity independently of communications methods, at least to those who are able to support more recent technologies. By doing it now you are being innovative while using concepts that are sufficiently established to be reliable.
- And yes, it really does cost less. ®